The news, as it tends to be, has been dominated by President Donald Trump over the last several days, perhaps even more so with his recent COVID-19 diagnosis, which means one recent Trump tidbit largely flew under the radar: his requirement that billions of dollars in food aid packages for the needy arrive in tandem with a letter signed by him.
“As President, safeguarding the health and well-being of our citizens is one of my highest priorities,” the letter reads, referencing the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s $4 billion Farmers to Families Food Box Program. The initiative has purchased food typically bought by restaurants and rerouted it toward poor families, with over 100 million boxes sent since May. “As part of our response to the coronavirus, I prioritized sending nutritious food from our farmers to families in need throughout America.”
Reactions have not been uniformly positive, with some characterizing the letter as an overtly politicized election stunt. “In my 30 years of doing this work, I’ve never seen something this egregious,” Lisa Hamler-Fugitt, executive director of the Ohio Association of Food Banks, told Politico. “These are federally purchased boxes.”
Some food banks have begun removing the letters. Meanwhile, several people appear to be receiving the aid and corresponding letter even though they aren’t underserved. “Why would someone receiving this really need to know this?” said Matthew Killen of Miami Beach, who is not in need but received a package of food on his doorstep, according to The Miami Herald. He lives in a majority Hispanic neighborhood, which he feels the administration “targeted” so Trump could “win [the] area.”
Readers might remember a string of similar criticisms leveled at former President Barack Obama during the 2012 election after the “Obamaphone” video went viral. “Everybody in Cleveland—low, minority—got Obamaphones,” says a woman who had shown up to protest at a Mitt Romney rally. “Keep Obama in president [sic]. He gave us a phone. He’s gonna do more.”
In reality, that controversy was a farce. Under the spotlight was the Lifeline program, which provides subsidies for communications to eligible low-income recipients. The catch: It was implemented in 1985 during the Reagan administration, and the Obama administration had sought to reform what was seen as a program plagued by massive fraud. The changes reportedly saved $213 million in 2012.
That didn’t get in the way of a semi-popular claim, however, that Obama was passing out phones for votes. “She may not know who George Washington is or Abraham Lincoln,” opined radio host Rush Limbaugh, “but she knows how to get an Obamaphone.” Former Rep. Adam Putnam (R–Fla.) had more pointed words: “Early vote now so that you can wave signs on election day next Tuesday,” he said. “We’ve got to drag people to the polls. That’s what they’re doing. You don’t have to offer them cell phones like they’re doing.”
The Trump administration denies that his food aid work was at all politically-motivated. “Politics has played zero role in the Farmers to Families food box program,” the Department of Agriculture said in a statement. “It is purely about helping farmers and distributors get food to Americans in need during this unprecedented time.”
Trump similarly attached a letter to the stimulus checks doled out as part of the government’s coronavirus relief program, though that was a bipartisan measure negotiated through Congress. The two programs have something else in common, though: They are the very types of “socialist” policies that many right-wingers usually condemn, a la “Obamaphones.”