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Food bank, city feud over documentation for COVID relief funds

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In a battle of press conferences Thursday, the City of El Paso and the area’s only food bank dueled over allegations that the nonprofit violated federal reporting requirements after it received coronavirus relief funds from the city in 2020.

Officials on both sides say they’re committed to a resolution, but it’s unclear when a settlement will be reached or what the terms could look like.

The El Paso City Council voted late Wednesday to notify El Pasoans Fighting Hunger Food Bank that the nonprofit defaulted on its 2020 agreement to keep required documentation in exchange for $3.7 million in COVID-19 relief funds. The food bank had to document race, ethnicity and household income for each client served and verify the number of people, to meet the federal standards.

Nicole Ferrini, El Paso’s chief resilience officer (Danielle Prokop/El Paso Matters)

The council directed the city manager and staff to open settlement negotiations.

During a Thursday morning press conference, Nicole Ferrini, the city’s chief resilience officer, said the food bank’s “noncompliance” threatens the city’s standing with the federal government, and if it continues, jeopardizes additional federal funds given to the city. The issue of noncompliance was first brought up in May 2021, and was an “ongoing discussion,” she said.

When asked if the city will require the food bank to return the $3.7 million as part of the settlement negotiations, Ferrini said: “That is a possibility. However, that is not the outcome that we would prefer to seek.”

An additional contract of $1.5 million in city funding to build a community kitchen at the food bank remains “on hold” until a settlement is reached, Ferrini said.

El Pasoans Fighting Hunger held a press conference hours later.

“I feel sucker punched,” CEO Susan Goodell said of the city’s allegations. “This is not the way to treat anyone. And especially this is no way to treat a charity that has worked so hard for this community for over a year and a half.”

Seven forklifts with stacks of taped banker boxes trundled their way behind her as she showed posters with enlarged copies of the intake documentation the food bank uses. Heaps of handwritten documents with people’s names, addresses, annual incomes, race and family size were inside the boxes.

Goodell said their agreement with the city allowed them to use paper records, and only required the food bank to store the records in a safe place and allow the city to inspect them.

“We have followed that contract to the letter. Unfortunately, the one piece in that contract that has not happened, it’s no one from the city has actually come out and looked at one single piece of documentation,” Goodell said.

El Pasoans Fighting Hunger Food Bank CEO Susan Goodell motions to a forklift carrying documents at a press conference Thursday. (Danielle Prokop/El Paso Matters)

El Paso officials disagree with that assertion. City spokesperson Laura Cruz-Acosta said city staff had visited the food bank.

“Uncollated data in banker boxes does not qualify as compliance for the federal government,” Ferrini said in an emailed statement following the food bank’s press conference.

Goodell said the food bank’s paper recording-keeping system has been sufficient for other federal agencies, including the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The disagreement, she said, stemmed from the city’s request in January that the food bank’s nearly 2 million individual client entries be digitized into a searchable database, which she called a “Herculean effort.”

Ferrini disputed that the city has required digitization of the records during the city press conference.

“There’s no requirement to digitize anything,” Ferrini said. “What the federal government requires is that you document and make that documentation reasonably accessible. To this date, we’ve never seen a single piece of documentation in any form.” 

Stuart Schwartz, the food bank’s board president, said he couldn’t comment on the city’s motivation for calling the nonprofit noncompliant, saying it would be “pure speculation,” on his part. He said he was unsure what the city would be asking for in a settlement, but said the first meeting would be held Friday morning.

El Pasoans Fighting Hunger has faced volunteering and staffing crunches threatening its programs, while demand for food has soared. It’s El Paso’s only food bank.

In May 2020, the city received $119 million in federal funds courtesy of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. It used that money to fund testing sites, housing assistance and other pandemic assistance programs. Ferrini said it was the city’s responsibility to ensure the funds were tracked to federal standards.

“We worked with (El Pasoans Fighting Hunger) and offered them training on how to do this,” Ferrini said. “We even offered them additional support, should they choose to accept it, to document everything that’s required.”

Goodell and Schwartz, however, denied the city provided such support.

“This is the first time I’ve heard of this,” Schwartz said, a sentiment Goodell echoed.

Ferrini said El Pasoans Fighting Hunger was the only program out of 96 others that failed to produce the required documentation to keep the federal COVID funding.

Disclaimer: El Paso Matters CEO Robert Moore is a board member for El Pasoans Fighting Hunger Food Bank. Moore was not involved in the reporting or editing of this story.

Cover photo: A worker in the El Paso Community Foundation’s “Get Shift Done” program selects produce for a food package at the El Pasoans Fighting Hunger headquarters in May 2020. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

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Danielle Prokop

Danielle Prokop is a climate change and environment reporter with El Paso Matters. She’s covered climate, local government and community at the Scottsbluff Star-Herald in Nebraska and the Santa Fe New Mexican. She can be reached at dprokop@elpasomatters.org.

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