The USDA’s Hunger Relief Efforts Are Violating Church-State Separation Rules October 1, 2020

The USDA’s Hunger Relief Efforts Are Violating Church-State Separation Rules

The Trump administration is where good ideas go to become horrifically mangled and twisted into increasingly grotesque assaults on American democracy.

Take, for instance, the Farmers to Families Food Box Program, an idea that, on its face, makes perfect sense. The pandemic continues, the economy is bad, and people need to eat. Farmers, meanwhile, need to stay afloat in the face of a market with diminished ability to buy what they’re selling. What if we bring those two groups together?

So the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) got to work, using distribution networks already in place to buy the farmers’ produce, then arrange for it to be boxed and delivered to food banks and other non-profits working to feed the hungry.

But as the program reaches the major milestone of 100 million boxes delivered, stories are surfacing about the myriad ways faith-based non-profits have been abusing the system to allow for self-promotion, proselytizing, and preferential treatment for people who share their religious beliefs.

Food news outlet The Counter — “an independent, nonprofit, nonpartisan newsroom investigating the forces shaping how and what America eats” — has devoted a number of articles to the system’s various failings in other areas: cushy contracts for ill-equipped companies, profiteering pricing schemes, uneven distribution, and punitive responses to negative feedback. Now reporters Jessica Fu and H. Claire Brown have turned their attention to the religious aspect of Farmers to Families.

There’s no getting around it: A lot of food aid distribution in American communities takes place in churches. That’s why the federal government has rules in place to maintain church-state separation. But those rules aren’t being followed by Farmers to Families distributors, and it’s creating a situation where people feel pressured to pray or attend services if they want to eat.

That gets to the heart of why these restrictions on religious expression exist in the first place. A statement from the USDA emphasized exactly where the government draws the line:

A non-profit faith-based organization participating in the Farmers to Families Food Box Program is permitted to express religious beliefs in the distribution of food boxes, as long as the activity does not disrupt the distribution of USDA benefits or make receipt of USDA benefits contingent on participation in religious activities or assent to religious beliefs.

But in their research, Fu and Brown found a wide range of religious intrusions into the program, including blatant violations of those terms.

The Counter found multiple instances in which churches promoted their own messages while distributing taxpayer-funded boxes, in potential violation of USDA guidelines. The issues range from relatively minor — like slapping church logos on each box — to more significant: apparently “saving” people at distribution sites, telling recipients the boxes are from God, and asking volunteers to pray “in person” for every single box recipient.

It’s crass enough to use charitable giving as a gimmick to advertise one’s religion to people in need. But in cases like these, it’s not even the church’s charity on display. The food wasn’t provided by the generosity of church members, and it certainly wasn’t provided by their God. It was paid for by taxpayer money. Yet churches happily take the credit.

In some cases, they’re taking even more than that: They’re soliciting donations for food that they say God provided free of charge. They call on visitors and church members to help them defray the costs of storage, logistics, and in-community transport. (One might ask why God didn’t think to provide for those needs as well.)

In theory, there’s a question worth asking in there: Is the program structured in such a way as to funnel profits into companies while forcing charities to pick up the slack? But placing the burden on the congregation’s shoulders muddies that church-state line even further. Churches are passing off a public program, funded by taxpayers, as private charity work, using it as evidence of worthiness to solicit donations from an unwary public.

And on top of it all, the help isn’t necessarily even reaching the hungry. Some churches are ignoring USDA stipulations about distribution, offering equal access to all takers — as long as they were members of the congregation. Fu and Brown found multiple churches advertising “free food” without restrictions, in some cases explicitly saying that it was available for anyone, regardless of need.

According to Eric Cooper, CEO for San Antonio Food Bank, that’s a long way from business as usual:

I cringed when I saw the “free food.” That’s just not the message. So many people get hurt when that happens. What I believe is that this investment was to help those that were struggling. Help the farmers, help the industry partners, and help families in need. If the benefit went to someone else, then people were robbed of the nourishment.

Typically there are rules in place to ensure that food provided to non-profit distributors actually reaches the people it’s meant to help, and this program is no different. But in the chaos of COVID, the rules seem to be going unenforced to a shocking degree.

Once again, the government turns a blind eye to the intrusion of religion into the public sphere, and thus into the lives of people who don’t want it around.

Only this time, resistance might mean your family goes hungry because you didn’t kneel down to pray.

(Image via Shutterstock. Thanks to Sacha for the link)

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