The U.S. Department of Agriculture is planning another round of contracts for the Farmers to Families Food Box Program, according to an administrator of the program who touted its successes during a Produce Marketing Association Virtual Town Hall.
Bruce Summers, administrator of the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service, said there have been “lessons learned” with the program’s introduction, and that there will likely be another opportunity for the 400 firms that were not awarded contracts in a new round of funding expected after July 1.
PMA chief science officer Max Teplitski talked with Summers about the successes and challenges of the program during the May 27 online Virtual Town Hall, a weekly event from the association.
“Unless the economy completely changes, and there’s no need for this program going forward, I think you can almost guarantee that there will be a second round,” Summers said.
The Farmers to Families Food Box Program contracts were announced May 8, sparking criticism that the USDA awarded multi-million dollar contracts to a few companies with no background in the industry while bypassing distributors with experience in produce handling and distribution.
Nearly 200 firms received contracts to distribute more than $1.2 billion of fresh produce, dairy products and precooked meat to food banks and similar operations.
About 44 million food boxes of variable weights are expected to be distributed by the end of June.
Summers recalled early April conditions of long lines at food banks, farmers who were dumping produce, and foodservice distributors who were laying off employees because of lost restaurant business.
“Based on that scenario, we’ve put together this new program, a brand new program, something we’ve never done before at AMS and USDA,” he said.
Rather than deliver truckload volumes to distribution centers, the companies in the program deliver boxes directly to food banks and other charities.
“The good news is we were able to stand up this program from about April 17 to when we started (making deliveries) May 15,” Summers said.
The $1.2 billion for the program is just beginning to be spent.
“That money doesn’t go out the door until boxes are delivered, and AMS gets an invoice from a distributor,” he said.
Invoices were just starting to come in, Summers said, with about 52,000 boxes delivered as of May 27, totaling just under $1 million.
The 198 distributors in the program are distributing boxes ranging from 10 to 25 pounds, for a total of about a billion pounds or more, he said.
Summers said the USDA plans to make data about the food boxes distributed available to the public on a timely basis.
“We’re going to make the information about the dollar volumes and the number of boxes available on our website so everyone could log in and kind of see that number as it grows,” he said. “There’s a lot of innovative things going on, and some really beautiful boxes are being given to folks that are dependent on some help.”
Teplitski asked Summers about the future of the program after June.
“Will those who already have contracts will see them renewed, or will there be another round of (awards)?” he asked.
Summers said the USDA is looking at areas of the country that are under-served by the program and how companies in those areas could be given more food boxes even before the next round of awards.
“Certainly, before we are ready to finalize our plans for that next round, we want to make sure that we’ve addressed any holes in the coverage that are out there,” Summer said.
Beyond that, Summers said the USDA is looking at options for renewing contracts and opening up the process to other companies.
“We had 600 companies (that) basically put in offers; we awarded 200,” he said. “That means there are still 400 companies that really spent a lot of time and put together serious proposals.
“We want to work in a way to continue to bring in new companies into the program,” Summers said. We’re excited to take what we’ve learned in this first round and make it better in the second round.”
Though not identifying any company, Summers said the USDA has terminated just one contract from the May 8 award list.
As reported by The Packer, Escondido, Calif.-based Ben Holtz Consulting, doing business as California Avocados Direct, was informed the USDA was terminating the company’s $40-million contract. Another company that has received media scrutiny, San Antonio-based CRE8AD8 (Create a Date), had not distributed a box as of May 28, according to Politico, which reported the company plans to begin distribution on June 1.
The USDA’s typical contracting process takes six weeks, but the Farmers to Families Food Box process allowed only one week.
“We had some flexibility in the contracting so we shifted some of that new vendor eligibility analysis into post-contract award,” he said, noting that USDA officials are now talking with contract recipients to make sure they are following food safety plans included in the bids.
“We’ll be doing record reviews to make sure that only 100% U.S.-grown domestically produce has been supplied in boxes, and we will be going in and looking into making sure that as these boxes are being filled and being delivered, that they’re following all the contract requirements that were a part of the proposal they gave us to be accepted,” he said.
Summers said companies that are not complying with their contract either will be corrected or terminated.