LAUSD becomes latest to refuse to include Trump letter in food boxes

The nation’s second-largest school district is the latest agency to refuse to include a letter signed by President Donald Trump in food boxes provided by the federal government to aid families hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic.

Austin Beutner, superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, penned an open letter to Trump on Wednesday, Oct. 7, stating that the president’s letter would politicize relief efforts.

“I am writing to inform you Los Angeles Unified will not be including your proposed letter in the Families Food Boxes we’re providing to families as part of our community relief efforts,” Beutner stated in his letter to Trump. “The letter may be a violation of the Hatch Act and will further politicize the response to COVID-19.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture last month began mandating that millions of boxes of food provided through the federal Farmers to Families Food Box Program include the Trump letter, which talks about serving “those most in need during this challenging time.”

While some agencies have concluded that the letter does not violate the Hatch Act, which prohibits federal employees from taking part in political activities while on the job, it still raises ethical questions for others. A number of food banks and other organizations that distribute these boxes have complained the letters are meant to help Trump’s image several weeks out from the election, thereby politicizing the government program.

LAUSD is not the only major district refusing to include Trump’s letter. San Diego Unified, the state’s second-largest district, is removing the letter as well, due to concerns that it downplays the importance of mask-wearing to prevent the spread of the virus, according to a news report.

Agencies around the country have opened the boxes and removed the letter before distributing the food. Others have said they lack the time or staff to do so.

Still others have responded in their own way. Food Share in Ventura County, for example, is including a note explaining why the letter from Trump is there and making clear that the president’s letter was not placed there by the local nonprofit.

Administration officials said criticism of the president’s letter is undeserved. Trump is only trying to distribute information Americans need to help make it through the pandemic, they said.

Ross Baker, a congressional scholar at Rutgers University, told the Associated Press that Trump’s approach to legislation is much like his style in the real estate world: He likes to brand his efforts by putting his name on them.

“It’s Donald the entertainer,” Baker said. “It’s one of the things that he learned from reality television that he’s applied pretty directly to the power of the presidency.”

Some food pantry operators privately expressed discomfort to Southern California New Group about distributing the boxes with the letter. One operator of a nonprofit food pantry who wished to remain anonymous said “the inclusion of the letter politicizes the food.”

If they decide to remove the letter, like some organizations have, “then we’re becoming political, and if we distribute it, we look like we’re being political,” the operator said.

And due to the timing of the letter, “we will look like we’re choosing a candidate — nonprofits cannot do that,” the operator said.

In a Sept. 24 letter to its food pantry partners, the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank notified them of the letter from Trump, and addressed the “unusual” nature of the letter. The organization said that after researching the matter, they learned that “this letter apparently does not violate any laws or regulations.”

Nevertheless, the letter stamped with Trump’s signature set off alarms for some who picked up boxes at North Valley Caring Services in North Hills.

Manny Flores, who operates the nonprofit, said they received the first of the boxes last week, “and it didn’t take long for us to start receiving phone calls, asking us if we were Trump supporters, complaining that they just wanted food, they didn’t want any kind of politics.”

A few people even said “they would not come back to our food pantry because we’re supporters of the president,” he added.

While the letter itself may contain relatively innocuous language, the timing may have some people on edge, said Flores, who describes himself as apolitical.

“I read through it, and you know, I get it,” he said. “But it happens to be a couple of weeks before voting time.”

He also noted the printing costs for the letter must be substantial, saying that last week North Valley Caring Services’ food distribution program alone distributed thousands of food boxes with letters in them.

David May, a spokesman for the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank said their organization did not directly consult with an attorney on the legality of the letter, but was told by Feeding America, the national network of food banks to which his organization belongs, “that the letter does not violate the Hatch Act given its contents.”

In an official statement, the Food Bank emphasized that it “does not endorse any presidential candidate, and the Food Bank has no connection to the letter and the inclusion of it in the food boxes.”

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