Trump team tries to milk the politics of food boxes to its final days

Helena Bottemiller Evich and Sabrina Rodriguez
·8 min read

Just before her father was impeached for the second time Wednesday, Ivanka Trump was on a Zoom call with Christian leaders to promote government food aid.

It was her first known public event since a violent mob overtook the U.S. Capitol a week earlier, but the first daughter and top adviser to President Donald Trump steered clear of the insurrection and impeachment. Instead, she talked about the power of distributing boxes with fresh food to people in need during the coronavirus pandemic — and got showered with praise from religious leaders.

The first daughter for months has been touting the USDA’s Farmers to Families Food Box Program through events, social media posts and photo ops, contributing to speculation that she’s looking to launch her own political career in Florida, her father’s soon-to-be home and one that Trump won in both 2016 and 2020. She’s been quick to claim credit for the food aid program, which she’s said she helped launch last spring, at the urging of her father, to help connect surplus crops with people in need.

The flurry of self-promotion, following other efforts by Trump administration officials to leverage the food program for alleged political gain, has triggered mounting complaints from anti-hunger advocates who are concerned the $6 billion aid program is being brazenly leveraged for political purposes.

“Food assistance shouldn’t be politicized and it’s now being used as a tool to soften Ivanka’s image,” said one advocate, who argued that nutrition assistance should remain nonpartisan. The Biden transition team is reviewing the program, which has funding through the spring.

The political positioning has particularly irked policy advocates because the Trump administration has overseen historic increases in hunger and food insecurity, especially among children and Black and Hispanic households, as the pandemic devastated the economy. The administration has repeatedly faced pressure to make it easier for kids from low-income households to access free meals this school year. Billions in nutrition aid that Congress approved in September has also not yet gone out the door, stuck in a bureaucratic morass at USDA, as POLITICO reported last month.

The Trump team has already been smacked down for inappropriately or even illegally exploiting taxpayer-funded food boxes for political benefit. In October, the U.S. Office of Special Counsel concluded that Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue violated the Hatch Act at a food box event in August for inappropriately engaging in political activity in his official capacity and at government expense — all to help boost Trump in North Carolina, a key swing state, in the runup to the election. The ethics watchdog agency ordered Perdue to reimburse taxpayers for the cost of the event.

Around the same time, the Trump administration began requiring that all food boxes include a letter from Trump, in both English and Spanish, that took credit for the program and touted the administration’s response to coronavirus. The move was sharply criticized as politicizing food aid just weeks before the election, and cost food banks and nonprofits untold hours of extra work during a crisis, but USDA officials denied the move was political or improper.

“Politics has played zero role in the Farmers to Families food box program,” the Agriculture Department said at the time. “It is purely about helping farmers and distributors get food to Americans in need during this unprecedented time.”

Ivanka Trump’s virtual confab last Wednesday — billed as a celebration — was her third food box event in the past month. It included staunch Trump supporters, such as Paula White, a longtime spiritual counselor to Donald Trump and Dave Donaldson, co-founder and chair of CityServe, an organization that connects local churches with resources.

White and Donaldson showered Ivanka Trump and her family with praise. “What they’ve done, I think, history will record beyond what we could ever recognize,” White said.

“I think God’s giving her a standing ovation. You’re a modern day Joseph. You’re feeding the nation,” Donaldson said.

The first daughter credited the president for coming up with the idea for the program and asking her to help make it happen following widespread media coverage early in the pandemic of farmers being forced to destroy millions of pounds of fresh food they could no longer sell as restaurants, cruise ships and hotels shut down. The USDA has long purchased commodities to help farmers, but historically the government hasn’t bought much fresh produce, which is highly perishable.

“You start with food and you move from there to impacting people’s lives in other sustainable long-term ways,” Trump said on the Zoom call.

The day before the insurrection, Ivanka took to Instagram to tout that the program had served 3.3 billion meals to families in need during the pandemic. It was her sixth Instagram post about the boxes since early December.

Ivanka Trump, daughter of and advisor to President Donald Trump, loads a box of fresh meat, produce and dairy in a car during a food distribution to the local community in Woodbridge, Va., Monday, Dec. 14, 2020. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
Ivanka Trump, daughter of and advisor to President Donald Trump, loads a box of fresh meat, produce and dairy in a car during a food distribution to the local community in Woodbridge, Va., Monday, Dec. 14, 2020. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

The White House dismissed the idea that the first daughter’s work on the program was political in nature, given her involvement in launching the initiative. “Feeding our nation’s hungry is not a partisan issue,” a White House official said. “Any insinuation that Ivanka’s work on this topic is premised on anything more than wanting to feed those in need is shameful.”

Ivanka and her husband, fellow presidential adviser Jared Kushner, have long sought to balance their power within the White House with their concern for their own personal reputations, quick to shrink away from the spotlight whenever the administration’s actions become too unpopular or politically toxic.

The USDA’s food box program has become an outlet for public relations wins during a period of sinking approval ratings for Trump himself and national discord over the Capitol riot and Trump’s attempt to overturn the election results.

In December, Ivanka Trump took part in two food box distribution events, with a rash of photographers on hand. The first was at a church in Woodbridge, Va., which was featured in an official White House video that was cross-posted to Ivanka’s Instagram account. Her account has 7.6 million followers — the most of any Trump family member, save for the president who has since been suspended from the platform along with Facebook.

A few days before Christmas, Ivanka Trump headlined a food box distribution event at a large church in Miami — a move that only intensified speculation she’s positioning herself for a possible Senate run there. The event, covered by local news and international tabloids alike, followed reports that she and Kushner had purchased a $31.8 million plot of land on an exclusive island in the Miami area known as “Billionaire’s Bunker.”

During the event, Ivanka Trump called her father and put him on speakerphone so he could speak to the crowd for several minutes.

As the first daughter stood in front of boxes of food, ostensibly purchased with taxpayer dollars, she held up her iPhone as Trump spouted false claims about election fraud while she nodded in approval. “It was a rigged election! We’re fighting it,” the president said, as supporters clapped and one shouted “four more years!”

“We are fighting very, very hard,” President Trump added.

While President Trump falsely claimed for months that the election was illegitimate, even though courts have unanimously thrown out such claims, Ivanka Trump herself has avoided making these allegations.

Some anti-hunger advocates said they weren’t sure whether the first daughter was misusing the nutrition assistance program for her own benefit, though they found the spectacle unnerving.

“If anyone were to use a mismanaged federal food distribution program for hungry Americans primarily as a way to gain more personal fame and/or to advance their quest for elective office, they should be ashamed of themselves,” said Joel Berg, CEO of Hunger Free America, a New York City-based nonprofit. “Doing so could also be potentially illegal — a violation of the Hatch Act.”

The food boxes that were handed out at the December event in Miami were produced by Oakes Farms, a large South Florida fruit and vegetable company owned by Alfie Oakes, a vocal Trump supporter. The company was awarded nearly $70 million in contracts as part of the USDA’s program. (The company was also reportedly awarded a multi-year $46.8 million Defense Department contract in 2018.)

Oakes, for his part, reportedly funded a bus trip from Southwest Florida to take 100 people to the pro-Trump rally that marched to the Capitol last Wednesday, the same event that ended up fueling a violent takeover of the building, leaving five dead, including a Capitol Police officer who was beaten and an Air Force veteran who was shot trying to illegally enter the House speaker’s lobby outside the floor of the House of Representatives.

“It was one of the best times of my life,” said Oakes, on a recent podcast, noting that the vast majority of people at the rally were protesting peacefully. During the interview, Oakes said he did not enter the Capitol building. On the company’s Facebook page, he wrote that he believed the entire incident was “a total set up to make President Trump and his supporters look bad.”