Hopes were running high among fresh produce foodservice distributors, food banks and other nonprofit groups that may benefit from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farmers to Families food box program.
The program was created to help growers and distributors recover from billions in lost foodservice business since mid-March, when COVID-19 social distancing mandates began.
With proposals due May 1, the USDA is expected to announce contracts awards by May 8 for the $100 million per month allocated for boxes of domestic fresh produce delivered to food banks and other charities.
Deliveries of the produce boxes are expected to begin by mid-May and the program will last up to six months.
In the week since the USDA released program details, North Kansas City, Mo.-based C&C Produce has invested many hours in preparing a proposal, said Nick Conforti, president and co-owner.
Conforti said April 30 he was optimistic the company will receive business through the Farmers to Families Program.
C&C can reach 3,200 nonprofit agencies in 341 counties, he said.
“We have definitely been working 14 hours a day on (the proposal),” Conforti said.
The Houston Food Bank is “incredibly excited” about the box program, said Sabrina Bosiacki, agriculture industry manager.
“This is going to be perfect for us,” Bosiacki said.
“One of our challenges that we’re facing right now as we’re working to distribute more food to our clients is that with a lack of volunteers because of social distancing norms, we really are struggling to be able to prepare the boxes of mixed food that we’re trying to distribute.”
The program should go a long way in helping address food insecurity, Bosiacki said.
Jennifer Boone, sourcing manager for Brighter Bites, said the group is looking forward to participating in the USDA program.
“Brighter Bites has been distributing mixed produce bags for almost eight years now and the produce industry sees us as experts in assembling a balanced combination of fruits and vegetables for families who have less access to fresh food,” she said.
“When the USDA announced this initiative, a number of produce companies consulted with us to help them respond and to partner with them on the execution of the program.”
Alex DiNovo, president and chief operating officer of DNO Produce, Columbus, Ohio, said he’s “extremely optimistic” about the program, and that demand for it will likely exceed available funding.
“Based on what I have learned in talking with folks in the industry, and also first-hand from speaking with potential customers, is that the demand for this program is so great that it is likely going to substantially exceed the dollar amounts that were initially proposed — kind of like the (Paycheck Protection Program),” DiNovo said.
“I really hope that additional funding is made available through this program.”
At the same time, some growers said the program won’t help them all that much; earlier industry estimates put foodservice losses at $1 billion per week.
“While we appreciate the effort of USDA’s Coronavirus Food Assistance Program announced recently, the limited programs don’t begin to benefit Florida specialty crop producers at the level that we so desperately need,” said Lisa Lochridge, director of public affairs for the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association.
“For most Florida crops, the season is either over or winding down, so the produce purchase program for the USDA Farmers to Families boxes comes too late in the season to provide any significant benefits to the vast majority of Florida growers.”
There has been confusion about the USDA coronavirus relief programs, said Shay Myers, CEO of Nyssa, Ore.-based Owyhee Produce.
“I feel like everything is being pushed through and very unorganized, much like with the Paycheck Protection Program,” Myers said.
Idaho potato growers support the produce box concept and the USDA’s efforts, but there are questions, said Shawn Boyle, president and general counsel of the Idaho Grower Shippers Association, Idaho Falls.
“I think there are varying levels of optimism on whether that produce box is going to work,” Boyle said.
“It’s a concept that is difficult for some to see the immediate benefit; is this really going to move a lot of produce or are we going to put two potatoes in a box with a couple of carrots and a banana that may not result in a lot of help?”