NSAC's Blog

USDA Food Box Program Falls Short of Supporting Small Farms

June 18, 2020

Farmer inspecting a dripline on a diversified farm. Photo credit: Caitlin Joseph

In late April, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announced the highly anticipated Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP), a two pronged plan the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) would implement to distribute $23.5 billion in Congressionally provided aid to farmers impacted by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

CFAP consists of two distinct programs:

  1. $16 billion in direct payments for commodity growers, specialty crop farmers, and livestock and dairy producers, and
  2. $3 billion in direct purchases of meat, dairy and specialty crops.

USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA) is administering the $16 billion direct payment program (more information on our blog), while the Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) is administering the latter effort through a new “Farmers to Families Food Box” (Food Box) program.

Farmers to Families Food Box Program Overview

The “Farmers to Families Food Box” program was developed to simultaneously address several pressing problems that were a direct result of the pandemic including surging demand for emergency feeding programs, loss of markets for many farmers, and dramatic increases in unemployment in the food distribution sector. To accomplish this daunting task, AMS issued a Request for Proposals (RFP) from entities, such as local and regional distributors, that have the capacity to procure, pack, and deliver boxes of fresh produce, dairy, and meat products to food banks and other non-profits serving Americans in need.

Focusing on this fresh food box approach was intended to help the emergency food system deliver large volumes of fresh food despite a system-wide shortage of cold storage capacity, volunteer shortages, and dwindling supplies of donated food. It was also intended to help farmers across the country who had lost markets as a result of social distancing strategies and were dumping milk, destroying product, or leaving crops unharvested in the field. Providing boxes with fresh food, which has some parallels to Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs, is an unusual approach for USDA which has a much longer record of purchasing and procuring shelf stable food from U.S. producers to provide to food banks, food pantries, soup kitchens, and other emergency feeding organizations (EFOs).

Awarded Contracts Overview

In early May, AMS announced and published the list of approved contractors for the CFAP Food Box Program. The initial round of USDA contracts awarded over $1.2 billion to local and regional distribution companies, and other entities, to assemble food boxes and distribute them to food banks and other EFOs from May 15 to June 30, 2020. Between May 15 to June 17, distributors delivered over 17 million food boxes to approximately 3,200 non-profit organizations across the United States including Guam and Puerto Rico.

On June 17th, the USDA announced that based on performance reviews that it was extending the contracts for a select number of vendors to deliver an additional $1.16 billion worth of food boxes from July 1st to the end of August. For this next period of food box assembly and distributions the USDA is also considering awarding new additional contracts to some vendors whose initial applications were rejected because of technical errors.

AMS contracts were awarded for 5 types of boxes: 1) fresh fruit and vegetable box, 2) dairy products box, 3) pre-cooked meat box, 4) a combination box, and 5) fluid milk box. Some contractors focused on just one type of box while others on multiple options. All food boxes must consist of 100 percent domestic grown and processed food and can only include fresh produce, fluid milk and processed dairy such as cheese, pre-cooked chicken, and pre-cooked pork. Fresh cut produce is allowed but not canned or frozen produce. Legumes are not allowed.

The food box program is organized on a regional basis, using the 7 regions below:

  • Mid-Atlantic – Delaware, DC, Maryland, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico, Virginia, West Virginia
  • Midwest – Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Wisconsin
  • Mountain Plains – Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming
  • North-East- Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virgin Islands
  • South-East – Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee
  • Western – Alaska, California, Guam, Hawaii, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, Washington
  • South-West – Arizona, Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah

While AMS ensured that every region was covered by a food box contract, there are several states within some regions that do not have distributors or farmers that are participating in the assembly and distribution in their region. Notably, not a single distributor or farm from the state of Maine is participating in the program, despite the state’s long history as a center of  agriculture and burgeoning small farm sector. 

Awarded Contracts and Local Food

Most of the news coverage on the CFAP Food Box Program, and the Congressional attention that follows, has focused on large contracts awarded to companies without much experience in the distribution of specialty crops. This also caused the larger specialty crop industry to raise concerns about the early shortcomings of the program.

What has received much less attention has been how the program has or has not benefited local and regional food producers despite the fact that the program was clearly intended to support these farmers. Grant applicants were required to discuss how their proposed project supports the mission of facilitating agricultural markets and how they “intend to engage small farmers (e.g those farms servicing local and region interests and farmers markets).”

Of the $1.2 billion worth of contracts initially awarded by AMS, approximately 7% or $84 million went to entities that appear to be local and regional food systems entities. That includes, individual farms, farmer cooperatives, food hubs, and related healthy food access organizations. NSAC is pleased to see that local food farms and organizations are benefitting from the program but it falls considerably short of the 10% target set out in the Farmers Feeding Families – Coronavirus Response Act, a bill that NSAC recognizes as a better alternative to the current food box program.

Of the 7 regions in which the food box program is currently operating, the Western and Midwest regions, where farms are on average larger than other regions, received by far the greatest number of contracts and amount of funding. Of the approximately $84 million awarded to local food systems related entities, nearly half or $38 million was awarded to entities in the Western region and another third, or $28 million, to entities in the Midwest. Just under half or $40 million of that $84 million is for fresh fruit and vegetable boxes.

Because of the limits of the available data, this analysis is confined to how local food related entities are directly benefiting from the program. It is likely that other local food serving farms and businesses that have been significantly impacted by the closure of restaurants, hotels, schools and other food service entities are also indirectly benefiting from the program by providing food to larger and regional distributors that received contracts. NSAC will continue to monitor the Food Box program and its results to build a more accurate picture of whether it is benefitting small farms and local food systems as intended. 

Missed Opportunity to Advance Equity

NSAC commends the USDA for including the requirement that applicants discuss how their proposed project supports the mission of facilitating agricultural markets and how they “intend to engage small farmers (e.g those farms servicing local and region interests and farmers markets).” However, the more detailed requirements of the program made certain that most small farmers selling into local markets would not be able to participate. AMS unnecessarily required all farms participating in the program and supplying products to have received a voluntary Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) audit or an equivalent.

GAP audits are relatively expensive, voluntary food safety audits that are common in the larger national specialty crop sector, where products are being commingled and shipped long distances, and the end-user has no direct connections to the producers. GAP audits and related certifications provide these end-users with some assurance that the product is safe.

Conversely GAP audits are not common in the world of local food systems, where supply chains are short and consumers, schools and restaurants often have direct relationships with farms.  As a result, buyers don’t usually need a food safety certification like GAP to provide assurances that the food was safe, and that the farmer is a reputable producer.

Because GAP audits are time consuming there was little opportunity for direct market oriented farmers to become certified just to meet the requirements to provide fresh produce for a food box. It also made little financial sense as the certification can be costly and undergoing an audit just to supply a temporary food box program, when it is otherwise unnecessary for normal local food marketing channels such as farmers markets or local school and restaurants sales, is a poor investment.

The requirement for producers to be GAP audited has meant that many beginning farmers, farmers of color, and indigenous farmers were left out of the program. Beginning farmers and farmers of color more often produce for, and sell into, local and regional markets meaning that programs that disadvantage local and regional food systems in turn disproportionally impact beginning farmers and farmers of color. As a result, many beginning and farmers of color that have been negatively impacted by the pandemic and lost markets are not benefitting from this program and continue to search for a lifeline in these troubling times.

A better alternative to requiring GAP certification would be for AMS to require all suppliers of produce to be in compliance with the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) Produce Safety rule which regulates the food safety of the entire produce sector. AMS could have stopped short of requiring voluntary GAP audits and instead required suppliers or farmers with food box distribution capacity (think CSAs) to be in compliance with the FSMA Produce Safety Rule and have a food safety plan. Such a threshold would have balanced both the needs for food safety and the need to support small farmers, beginning farmers, and farmers of color.

As Congress and the USDA continues to develop responses to the unprecedented social and economic impacts of the pandemic, NSAC will continue to advocate for programs that support local and regional food producers and account for the unique needs of the direct marketing farm economy.

Categories: General Interest, Grants and Programs, Local & Regional Food Systems, Nutrition & Food Access

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