After numerous industry questions and an exchange of letters between national trade associations and U.S. Department of Agriculture officials, Tom Stenzel believes it is time to focus on the positives of the Farmers to Families Food Box Program.
“We should all now focus on how wonderfully the program is proceeding in many cities and rural areas of the country,” Stenzel, United Fresh Produce Association president and CEO, said in a statement on May 21. “Produce companies and their partners are bringing fresh fruits and vegetables to those in need and making a difference in people’s lives.”
The statement came two weeks after the USDA announced contracts worth $1.22 billion to nearly two hundred firms to distribute fresh produce and other foods to food banks and other charities,
While the list of contracts included many well-known produce companies, there were questions how firms without any background in the industry, lacking a Perishable Agricultural Commodities Act license, and devoid of warehouses, coolers or trucks could receive multi-million dollar contracts.
On May 11, United Fresh sent 15 questions about the process of awarding contracts to Bruce Summers, administrator of the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service, which oversees the Farmers to Families Food Box Program.
Stenzel thanked the USDA for their speed in creating the program, soliciting offers and awarding bids, but said the list created questions.
Some of the questions were:
- Did USDA require that awardees be PACA-licensed produce dealers in good standing? If not, why not, and how can USDA ensure that non-licensees fulfill the requirements of PACA?
- To what extent did USDA consider an offeror’s ability to deliver on the contract effectively and efficiently?
- How will USDA determine that the contract is being carried out as promised in the bid? What actions will be taken if the contract is not being fulfilled?
- If during the base period there are concerns around the contractor’s ability to deliver, will previously denied offerors be given the opportunity to perform?; and
- What will be USDA’s process for subsequent bid periods to ensure that additional vendors are approved and awarded?
On May 14, Stenzel and Cathy Burns, CEO of the Produce Marketing Association, sent a joint letter to Summers.
The executives praised the speed in which the program was established and its goal, but suggested the USDA work with industry in the future.
Produce companies, according to the letter, are offering to guide the USDA “in any appropriate way to provide background” on:
- Day-to-day efficiencies in the produce supply chain;
- Ways in which companies can most cost-effectively deliver fresh produce; and
- Performance standards that USDA can audit to ensure successful execution.
In a five-page May 21 response, Summers answered each of the 15 questions in turn.
Summers said that more than 550 proposals were received for the program and the USDA approved 198 contracts totaling more than $1.2 billion for the food box program, with $231.9 million in contracts going to United Fresh members.
“Food boxes are already being delivered,” he said in the letter. “The industry’s response to this program, including from your members, helps us uphold our commitment to meet the needs of farmers and families, and resulted in this swift action.”
Summers said the USDA was exercising oversight of the contracts, and hosted a conference call with the recipients the week following their approval. Requirements discussed on the call included the need for a Perishable Agricultural Commodities Act license, food safety; USDA audits and oversight throughout the contract period,
The USDA has received numerous requests for submitted proposals and additional information regarding the contract approval process.
“We are following up on any concerns regarding specific contractors to ensure they can meet the contractual requirements and successfully perform,” he said.
Summers said the USDA cannot by law release the list of the companies who made proposals for the food box program.
In addition, he said USDA may not release full proposals for those that were awarded.
Summers said the USDA has a process to “debrief” companies not awarded contract about the reasons they were not granted awards.
“USDA will reconsider current offers if mistakes were made in the evaluation,” he said.
He said proposals for the USDA Farmers to Families Food Box Program were evaluated by (in descending order of importance):
- Technical information documented;
- Past performance of the offeror;
- Offeror’s capability to perform; and
- The prices offered.
“As previously noted, successful proposals included many small businesses and those that will support local and regional farmers, which was part of the evaluation criteria for contract award,” he said.
Summers said USDA may extend the period of performance of the contracts, via option periods, and/or solicit additional proposals, dependent upon the program’s success and available remaining funds of up to $3 billion.
“USDA will continue to look for new and better ways to accomplish our mission, support American agriculture and the American people,” Summers said in his response.
While some in the industry have attacked the USDA program “using our request for strong oversight and transparency as a basis for their actions,” Stenzel said the USDA response was “clear and provides a level of transparency that is important.”
“The actions taken by USDA to date provide confidence in the ability of the Department to provide oversight of all contracts and their execution to achieve our mutual goals,” Stenzel said.