The Farmers to Families Food Box Program that was recently initiated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is facing scrutiny from a group of lawmakers. Several questions regarding the program have also been raised by industry groups, who are seeking more clarity on the administration of how contracts are awarded by USDA.
In a letter addressed to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, House Agriculture Subcommittee on Nutrition, Oversight, and Department Operations Chair Marcia L. Fudge, Subcommittee on Livestock and Foreign Agriculture Chair Jim Costa, and Subcommittee on Biotechnology, Horticulture, and Research Chair Stacey Plaskett questioned how the food box program is being managed. The three members of Congress are asking how the $1.2 billion in contracts were awarded for the purchase and distribution of fresh produce, dairy products, and cooked meat.
“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,” the letter stated. “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.”
The letter raises several questions about the considerations that were made in awarding contracts under the Farmers to Families Food Box Program, including an applicant’s financial standing and ability to meet contract stipulations without an overreliance on subcontractors. The lawmakers also asked whether applicants had to have a Perishable Agricultural Commodities Ace license or have previous experience in the agricultural sector. Industry groups such as the United Fresh Produce Association have also raised similar questions about the contract award process.
Some of the contracts awarded under the program have received criticism, as some awardees appear to have little to no experience with an agricultural program of this kind. The most notable concerns about the contracts are in relation to an event planner and a company that sells organic hand sanitizer among other health-and-wellness products. Since the award announcement, USDA had indicated the agency will terminate the $40 million contract for Ben Holtz Consulting.