The new federal food box program began more than two weeks ago to provide relief to farmers and hungry Americans, but absentee suppliers have left some food banks scrambling to meet demand.
“It’s been frustrating,” said Pamela Irvine, president and chief executive officer of Feeding Southwest Virginia, a food bank with locations in Salem and Abingdon. “Not every state—and certainly not every food bank—has an opportunity to utilize this food.”
The Agriculture Department introduced the Farmers to Families Food Box Program as the coronavirus economic crash drove more than 40 million Americans to file for unemployment. Many are turning to food banks for their next meals.
While the federal initiative dispatched food seamlessly to some charities, others wonder when their vendors will deliver.
The government awarded more than $1.2 billion in program contracts to 198 suppliers on May 8. The Agriculture Department allocated $3 billion to purchases of excess produce, dairy, and meat as part of its $19 billion Coronavirus Food Assistance Program established on April 17.
About $16 billion was committed to direct payments for agriculture producers with coronavirus-related losses. The larger program funds stem from both the second coronavirus stimulus law (Public Law 116-127) and the third relief package (Public Law 116-136).
Michael Flood, chief executive officer of the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank, said the program has yielded a “mixed bag” of results for charities. His organization serves the nation’s most populous county—home to more than 10 million residents in 88 cities.
Flood said it’s difficult to meet his community’s need, but “food is flowing in” from about a dozen federal vendors. Still, “there’s been some criticism of some of the contracts that were awarded,” he said, pointing to California Avocados Direct as an example.
The Escondido-based produce company’s $40 million contract was terminated “for the government’s convenience” on May 20, according to a letter obtained by Bloomberg Government.
As with any new program, evaluations are ongoing to assist USDA in determining whether any adjustments are needed, the department said in a May 29 statement. During post-award reviews of proposals, if the government discovers a flaw in the evaluation process, it may take several actions, including the issuance of a stop work order and possible termination, the statement said.
“Our advice to USDA is to select companies that really have deep experience in the food world,” Flood said. “I do feel for my food bank brothers and sisters in areas where they’re not seeing any product.”
Irvine at Feeding Southwest Virginia said she asked for about 3 million pounds of commodities for the food box program’s first round, which spans May 15 to June 30. Her organization, which caters to Virginia’s poorest and most rural counties, had received two truckloads as of May 29, she said.
Upon reaching out to federal vendors, “they wouldn’t know anything at all about the program,” she said. Irvine said she’s since made arrangements with three distributors outside of her mid-Atlantic region—one as far away as Washington state.
“At one point, we were at risk of not having any food,” she said.
Eric Cooper, president and chief executive officer of the San Antonio Food Bank, said he is only getting three of 20 weekly truckloads he requested.
“None of the contractors are able to provide that,” he said. “I’m scrambling to figure out how we can make it happen.”
The Covid-19 pandemic doubled demand in Cooper’s 16-county service area to 120,000 hungry people per week from the typical 60,000.
While suppliers like Cargill Meat Solutions Corp., a subsidiary of global corporation Cargill Inc., have brought products, Cooper has only received half of a truckload from CRE8AD8 LLC, a San Antonio event planner with a $39 million contract. Cooper said he expected a meat delivery Monday, but the agency has since rescheduled to the week’s end.
‘Not Working Well’
“We’re just trying to stretch what food we have as far as we can until this program starts to get going,” Cooper said.
Greater Chicago Food Depository spokesman Greg Trotter said his organization distributes food to more than 700 Illinois charities. Logistical hurdles with the federal program’s vendors—most of whom he said are subcontracting—have “definitely increased burden on us,” he added Monday.
He said some suppliers have missed their designated delivery times, while others “may not even have a pallet jack” for unloading.
“It’s a deeply flawed program,” Trotter said. “It’s just not working well here, and we have to figure it out.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Megan U. Boyanton in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org