Letters signed by President Donald Trump arrived in hundreds of fresh produce boxes this week set to go to Coastside families in need. Staff and volunteers from Coastside Hope and the city of Half Moon Bay removed the unprecedented letters before handing out the boxes in an effort to avoid partisan politics and fear that clients’ information could be reported to the federal government.

The letters were printed on White House letterhead and signed by the president. They explained the food program and suggested that residents continue to take COVID-19 precautions. They are being included in a specific set of around 200,000 boxes that come to Second Harvest of Silicon Valley from the USDA’s Coronavirus Food Assistance Program and are sent to distribution partners across the area.

Second Harvest CEO Leslie Bacho said the third-party vendor that packs the food program boxes is required to include the letter, but said Second Harvest disagreed with its inclusion. The food boxes make up around 14 percent of the food her organization has distributed since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Bacho said she is very concerned that the letter implies that Second Harvest is endorsing President Trump or supports his policies and rhetoric. She was clear that Second Harvest does not track or report the immigration status of its clients and does not endorse any political candidates.

But Bacho said the time it would take her volunteers to remove the letters from each box would mean less food would go out to the half-million clients they feed each month. Instead, Second Harvest sent a notice to its local partners about the letter and is now including a new note in the boxes it packs in-house that explains the Trump letter and clarifies the nonprofit’s values.

“We’re not willing to sacrifice food … getting out to the community because of these letters,” Bacho said.

Reports from the online news sites POLITICO and ProPublica have questioned whether the letter violates the Hatch Act, a federal law which prohibits government officials from using their position or taxpayer resources for political gain. But because the wording doesn’t explicitly reference the election, it may not violate the law, experts say.

Coastside Hope Executive Director Judith Guerrero said she found out about the letters in an email from Second Harvest earlier this week notifying distributors that they would be included in any boxes labeled “USDA Farms to Families Food Box,” and that no rules prohibited removing the letters. She and her staff decided to remove them from this week’s boxes both to avoid appearing partisan and because official government documents could create stress for undocumented residents they serve who may worry food banks are collecting information.

“We’re not here to be part of one political party or the next,” Guerrero said. “We’re here for our clients.”

City of Half Moon Bay Deputy Manager Matthew Chidester made a similar decision this week at the city’s Thursday food distribution. He said without a tip from Coastside Hope, he may never have known the letters were inside the boxes. A half-dozen staff members spent the better part of an hour removing each letter from the boxes before distributing them Thursday afternoon.

Chidester said it’s not unusual for food boxes to be used to distribute information in addition to much-needed fresh produce to local residents. But in this case, his staff determined that the content of the letter did not justify the potential harm of including it.

“Because it has the White House logo on it, given our service population, it could actually do more harm than good,” Chidester said. “It could create fear.”

These particular boxes, Chidester said, were notably larger and full of items like fresh milk, eggs, cheese, vegetables and fruit. He said he hoped that removing the letter won’t jeopardize the city’s ability to receive and distribute these abundant boxes. Bacho confirmed that no groups will be held liable for including or removing the letters.

She said that in the four decades Second Harvest has received food from the USDA, it has never seen a letter like this. Bacho said she’s heard from many recipients who are angry, disappointed and confused about the letter. She said she decided to remove a flier about voter registration from new boxes because, coupled with the president’s letter, it may inaccurately imply that Second Harvest is encouraging residents to vote for President Trump.

“This is so painful for us and painful for our staff,” Bacho said.

Both Chidester and Guerrero said they will continue to remove the letters from any future boxes they get from the USDA source.

“It was certainly frustrating,” Chidester said. “But people are more than willing to make the effort.”

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