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Industry responds to USDA food box contracts, transparency details

Jessica Brim Kirk/Lewis Taylor Farms Lewis-taylor-box-produce-aB.jpg
According to USDA, a total of 550 proposals were received for the Farmers to Families Food Box Program. On May 8, the agency approved 198 contracts totaling more than $1.2 billion.

United Fresh Produce Association supported the program but had concerns. On May 21, USDA provided details of the process and transparency of the new Farmers to Families Food Box Program formed in response to fruit and vegetable market supply chain disruptions and food security needs caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

"We greatly appreciate the serious commitment to oversight that USDA has shared in response to our letter of May 11 regarding the Farmers to Families Food Box program. This innovative program was set up in record time to provide a win-win-win opportunity for farmers, produce distributors who were devastated by the collapse of the foodservice business, and most importantly, those in most need in our communities across the country," said Tom Stenzel, United Fresh CEO, in a May 21 statement.

Through the Farmers to Families Food Box Program, the USDA will contract with regional and local distributors to purchase an estimated at $100 million per month in fresh fruits and vegetables, $100 million per month in dairy products and $100 million per month in meat products. Interested distributors and producers were to submit proposals to participate in the program.

According to USDA, a total of 550 proposals were received. On May 8, the agency approved 198 contracts totaling more than $1.2 billion, which included $231,969,412 in contracts to United Fresh members, USDA says in a letter to Stenzel, which also included answers to 15 specific questions regarding the box program.

"Since the contracts were approved, we have 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. However, we can only discuss concerns over the award process directly with the entity that submitted the proposal. The Contracting Officer sent a letter to each entity that did not receive a contract on May 11, 2020, to begin those discussions," the agency said in May 21 letter to United Fresh.

List of approved contractors broken down my region can be found here. In the Southeast, 24 contracts were approved. For example, Chattanooga-based T&T Produce received a $1.8 million contract to deliver 15,000 boxes of produce per week to nonprofits in Chattanooga, Knoxville, Nashville and Birmingham. The first deliveries started May 18 and will run through June 30, according to the produce company.

“Supporting our community has been the pillar and leading encouragement of our business model since T&T Produce’s beginning in 1989,” said Anthony Buchanan, CEO of T&T Produce. “This USDA partnership reflects our desires to quickly get fresh produce in the homes of people that need it most.”

"Our goal has been, and will always be, to see that this program works as intended and get healthy fresh produce efficiently and safely to people in need. USDA’s response to our questions is clear and provides a level of transparency that is important. And, 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 says.

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