Like many in our community, I was sorely disappointed to receive an email last week from The Food Depot, Northern New Mexico’s food bank, announcing its decision to distribute thousands of boxes of meals that include what amounts to a political advertisement from President Donald Trump.

The advertisement came in the form of a letter on White House stationery, signed by Trump, just a few weeks before the hotly contested presidential election. The administration’s U.S. Department of Agriculture mandated that the letter be inserted by a national contractor into meal boxes that are now being distributed to food banks in communities across our country.

This action is yet another a cynical and obvious attempt by the president to use taxpayers’ money to build political support while taking personal credit for an otherwise worthy effort designed to help those hurt by his own ineffective response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting economic catastrophe.

You’ll remember that the president took the same approach earlier this year when letters bearing his signature went out to all taxpayers ahead of the pandemic relief checks, insinuating that he alone was responsible for the payments. Prior to this administration, it would have been unthinkable for a president to try to capitalize on the misfortune of our citizens while heaping praise upon himself.

In media reports last week, the head of Hunger Free America, a nationwide anti-hunger nonprofit, called the White House letters “absolutely outrageous.” He went on to say the letters “… essentially blackmail nonpartisan food charities into aiding Trump’s reelection campaign by threatening more Americans to go hungry if these food boxes are not distributed.”

Like food banks across the nation, our own highly respected and effective Food Depot has been placed between the proverbial rock and a hard place. As a nonprofit that’s not permitted to engage in political activity, the Depot’s leadership — operating under tremendous time pressure — was forced to confront this question: Do we distribute perishable meals containing a political ad or do we take the time to remove the letters?

This troubling episode began when a shipment of 4,000 boxes arrived here in Santa Fe by tractor trailer. The boxes of grocery items contained perishable food that had to be moved quickly out to locations across a huge swath of the state to be put directly into the hands of hungry New Mexicans. In an effort to explore every option to remain nonpartisan, The Food Depot evaluated the option of removing the letter from each box, a step that its national parent organization, Feeding America, deemed permissible. It soon became apparent that the Santa Fe-based Food Depot didn’t have enough people nor enough time to make this happen. Instead, they moved quickly to place stickers on each box that described the Food Depot’s nonpolitical, nonpartisan status. Local community centers, churches and other organizations that distribute the meal boxes have been informed that they can remove the letters if they wish. Some did just that, while others did not.

Many needy and grateful families receiving boxes with letters (written in Spanish as well as English) may well decide to vote for President Trump, perhaps for no other reason than because they are hungry and the only name associated with the delivery is the president’s. Other recipients may see this for what it is — an outlandishly inappropriate strategy for buying their vote. Either way, the Trump Administration has manipulated our community’s Food Depot. If you’re a Trump supporter, you may be outraged that the Food Depot even considered removing the letters. If you support another candidate, you may criticize the depot for not refusing delivery of the boxes or removing the letters, however long it took.

Thanks a lot, Mr. President, for placing nonprofit food banks in a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” dilemma, distracting them from their critically important mission to feed the hungry.

Because more shipments are scheduled to arrive over the next several weeks, workers at The Food Depot may have time to do what food banks in other regions have done: put out an emergency call for volunteers to devote a day or two or three this month to open boxes, remove letters and reseal the boxes.

In the meantime, The Food Depot should immediately engage the governor and our congressional delegation to pressure on the Trump administration to remove the letters before they are sent out to the nation’s food banks.

The Food Depot also could refuse to accept future shipments that include the letters. If The Food Depot believes this step would delay food distribution and deprive hungry New Mexicans of much-needed food, it should consider mounting an immediate new campaign in the community asking for a burst of donated food and money to fill this gap. But even with that, due to limited on-site refrigeration and other resources, The Food Depot can’t accept donations of some of the types of food found in the USDA boxes, including fresh meat, cheese and yogurt, because of their highly perishable nature.

There appears to be no limits to Trump’s ability to drag good people and fine institutions down to his level. Even noble efforts to feed our nation’s hungry can’t escape his insatiable appetite to feather his own bed.

Let’s not allow him to politicize anti-hunger organizations like New Mexico’s Food Depot.

James A. Harnar retired in 2015 after a 30-year career as a nonprofit health care executive in Maine. A retired Navy officer with 25 years of active duty and reserve service, he is a former volunteer at The Food Depot.

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