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UPDATE: Community Food Basket reverses course, will leave Trump letters in boxes

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UPDATE

Ariel Jackson, the Executive Director of Community Food Basket – Idaho Falls, issued the following statement Thursday evening and said the organization will now leave letters from President Donald Trump in food boxes:

As Executive Director of the Community Food Basket – Idaho Falls, I apologize for the confusion generated from our recent decision to remove President Donald Trump’s letter that was included in the delivery of our Farmer to Families Coronavirus Food Assistance Program distribution food boxes.

As a non-profit, emergency food organization which has NO political ties, simply a desire to feed those in need, less than 10% of the letters were removed from the 2,000 supplemental food boxes we receive monthly. In an effort to try and remove any political acknowledgement to maintain our non-political presence, many have viewed that omission as a political gesture. This is simply not the case and moving forward we, as an organization, will leave the letters intact.

With more than 54 million people in this country facing hunger and food insecurity, distributing food in an effort to help alleviate hunger remains our first priority. These letters will remain in our incoming food boxes with the hope that our donors, patrons, partners and volunteers are aware that Community Food Basket neither promotes nor discredits any political party or candidate. We are simply here to feed individuals and families who are struggling. That is our true mission.

ORIGINAL STORY

IDAHO FALLS — The Community Food Basket in Idaho Falls is getting some heat over a decision to not include a letter from President Donald Trump in the latest round of food boxes from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The Farmers to Families Food box program began providing food for families impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic in April. The USDA partners with grocery stores and farmers nationwide to package fresh produce, dairy, meat and canned goods into 30-pound boxes and send them to food banks and nonprofits to give to those in need.

Weekly shipments of 200 30-pound boxes started coming to the Idaho Falls Community Food Basket in June. The latest shipment on Monday came with a letter from the White House.

“Dear Family,” the letter begins. “As President, safeguarding the health and well-being of our citizens is one of my highest priorities. As part of our response to the coronavirus, I prioritized sending nutritious food from our farmers to families in need throughout America.”

After recommending specific health practices, President Trump reiterates his commitment to take care of America’s families and says America will “emerge from this crisis stronger than ever before.”

READ THE FULL LETTER BELOW:

Idaho Falls Community Food Basket Executive Director Ariel Jackson tells EastIdahoNews.com they were informed the letter was coming and that distributors were mandated to include it, but that charities were free to remove it. The decision to remove the letter from the food boxes was multi-faceted, she says.

“We’re not political. We’re about food. We never want someone who comes to us for food to feel like they have to … sympathize with any religious or political group,” Jackson says.

Some have suggested the decision to remove the letter was politically motivated, but Jackson says the idea was to keep politics out of it entirely.

“We would have done the same thing if it were another president (that sent the letter). It would be the same for the mayor or any other political organization,” Jackson says. “We’re a Christian organization but we don’t put our Christian ministry in the boxes. It’s the same concept. All we want to do is give you food.”

Another reason they chose not to include it, Jackson says, is because one of the letter’s health recommendations made wearing masks optional. Bonneville County is under a mask mandate and the food basket observes that mandate. If volunteers got sick, Jackson says they would be forced to close for two weeks and that would cut off needy families from their food supply.

As news of the food basket’s decision has circulated, Jackson says they’ve gotten mixed reactions from community members. Some are supportive and have offered to help remove the letters and distribute the food. Others have expressed outrage over the decision.

“The Idaho Falls food basket just alienated a ton of (its) volunteer base by censoring the office of the President of the United States,” one person wrote in an email to EastIdahoNews.com. “The food basket just turned this into a political spectacle and it is not a good look for a group that constantly needs donations and volunteers. (It’s) despicable they would use their dislike of President Trump to divide our community.”

Decisions made at food banks across the country are facing similar scrutiny, according to the Idaho Statesman. While many are choosing to remove the letter, some are not. Reasons cited for not removing the letter range from fears about it taking too long to concerns it will only distract from the program’s real purpose, which is to help people.

Jackson says she’s surprised the decision is so controversial.

“We really didn’t think it was going to turn into something bigger,” she says. “Maybe it’s because we’re not political that we didn’t see how political it could become.”

Rett Nelson | EastIdahoNews.com

Getting by during the pandemic

The debate comes in the wake of volunteer and food shortages at the food pantry. In August, Idaho Falls Community Food Basket reported a 75%-100% increase in the number of people needing food assistance and a huge drop in volunteers as a result of the coronavirus outbreak.

RELATED | Local food pantry and soup kitchen struggling to stay open and staff are asking for your help

Jackson says things are looking a little better than they were two months ago.

“We’re expecting a surprise, large donation next week that will hopefully get us through the holidays. We’re also hosting a month-long food drive right now,” she says.

Many of the volunteers have been replaced and Jackson says they have enough to get by.

“The majority of our longtime core volunteers are afraid. There’s a perception of fear that isn’t going away anytime soon,” Jackson says. “That sense of freedom and feeling like you can do anything is gone … and I don’t think it will really ever be the same.”

The Idaho Falls Community Food Basket hosts a monthly mass distribution event. A semi-truck arrives in Idaho Falls the third Friday of every month with 1,000 boxes to hand out to 1,000 families. The next one is happening Oct. 16 in the Sears parking lot from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m.

Jackson says macaroni & cheese, cereal, oatmeal and tuna fish are among the most-needed items right now. To volunteer or make a donation, call (208) 524-0994.

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