Making Nice Over Food Boxes

May 26, 2020

Why it’s nice, sort of, to see the United Fresh Produce Association make up with the USDA.

The pandemic situation in the U.S. has become a political football, because how could it not? If there’s one thing we’ve shown over and over in this country, it’s that we can politicize anything.

So it’s nice, sort of, to see the United Fresh Produce Association make up with the USDA over the Farmers to Families Food Box Program.

The program was designed to bridge the gap between farmers forced to dump produce because the capacity to process it doesn’t exist, and hungry consumers. The idea was to gather up perishable crops and other items, box them and deliver them to food banks and other charities.

Which is great, except that the initial round of contracts to package and deliver those goods – worth $1.2 billion – went to some companies that raised eyebrows. Among these were $39 million to a company in San Antonio that plans lavish weddings, and another that “specializes in trade-related finance,” according to Politico. Worse, some experienced produce distributors applied for contracts and didn’t get them.

That prompted a tough letter from Tom Stenzel, CEO of the United Fresh Produce Association, to USDA, complaining about the situation and the denial of licenses to its members: “Companies who were awarded bids without their own warehouse, staff and distribution ability are now soliciting [as subcontractors] companies that have those facilities and were denied bids for no apparent reason.” The letter contained 15 questions, including “To what extent did USDA consider an offeror’s ability to deliver on the contract effectively and efficiently?”

Bruce Summers, the administrator of the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service, wrote Stenzel with answers to all 15 questions, spelling out the capabilities that contractors had to have to win a bid: “USDA evaluated the offeror’s ability to responsibly execute the requirements of the contract as they pertain to administrative, ethical, safety, compliance, and financial prowess of the offeror.”

In an immediate response to the USDA’s response, Stenzel proclaimed himself delighted with Summers’ answers, and implicitly rebuked those who piggybacked on UFPA’s criticism as a way to bash the Trump administration’s response to the pandemic in general.

“In recent days, some have attacked the program using our request for strong oversight and transparency as a basis for their actions. This is unfounded,” he wrote. “USDA’s response to our questions is clear and provides a level of transparency that is important.... We should all now focus on how wonderfully the program is proceeding in many cities and rural areas of the country.”

Well, yay? I hope Stenzel’s sentiments are genuine and not just an attempt to make nice with a government agency that holds considerable power over his association’s members.

I guess the proof of the food box will be in the eating: whether this program actually gets produce, with reasonable efficiency, where it’s needed. If that happens, then we will all be disabused of the notion that this is another example of Trump administration amateurism.

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