House ag members question USDA on food box contracts

08:31PM May 24, 2020
USDA-Produce-Box
( Photo courtesy Humusak; Source Unsplash; Graphic by Brooke Park )

Echoing concerns raised in the fresh produce industry, members of Congress serving on House agriculture subcommittees, are asking Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue about the process to award contracts for the Farmers to Families Food Box program.

Three members of Congress sent Perdue a letter May 22 formally asking for information on the $1.2 billion in contracts to supply fresh produce, dairy products and cooked meat in boxes for distribution to food banks.

Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, chairwoman of the House Agriculture subcommittee on Nutrition, Oversight and Department Operations; Jim Costa, D-Calif., chairman of the subcommittee on Livestock and Foreign Agriculture; and Stacey Plaskett, chairwoman of the subcommittee on Biotechnology, Horticulture and Research, sent the letter to Perdue.

“As chairs of the subcommittees in the U.S. House of Representatives with jurisdiction over USDA food purchase and donation programs, we share USDA’s goal of providing effective and timely assistance to families, farmers, and food supply businesses like food distributors,” according to the letter. “We are concerned, however, that contracts were awarded to entities with little to no experience in agriculture or food distribution and with little capacity to meet the obligations of their award.”

A few of the awards raised eyebrows: $40 million to California Avocado Direct, $39.1 million to San Antonio-based CRE8AD8, an events planner, and $12.2 million to Travel Well Holdings LLC, which sells organic hand sanitizers, CBD products, lip balm and other products online. The USDA has since terminated the California Avocado Direct contract, and the San Antonio Express News on May 24 published a story that cast aspersions on many claims on CRE8AD8’s website.

The lawmakers’ letter to Perdue posed a dozen questions, including:

  • What criteria were used to determine which applicants would be awarded contracts?
  • How did USDA consider and evaluate applicants’ previous experiences and preexisting relationships with farmers, non-profits, and emergency feeding organizations?
  • What consideration did USDA give to awarding contracts in a way that demonstrated equity across regions and agriculture sectors?
  • What considerations did USDA give to applicants’ capacity to fully deliver the quantities outlined in their solicitations without overly relying on subcontractors?
  • How did USDA evaluate an applicant’s ability to implement strict food safety protocol, particularly for applicants with little to no experience in the food and agriculture sector?

“At a time when the farm economy continues to suffer and families across the country face increasing food insecurity, it is our shared goal that this program fulfill its stated mission to support the domestic agriculture industry and provide critical assistance to families in need,” according to the letter.

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