USDA adds vendors, extends others as food box program enters second round

The government will spend $1.16 billion in July and August on its initiative to buy surplus food at the farm level, package it, and donate it to food banks and other organizations for distribution to hungry Americans. In announcing the second round of the Farmers to Families Food Box program, the USDA said on Wednesday that it was extending the contracts of “select vendors” from the first round, adding “a few” new vendors, and dropping some others.

“These extensions are a testament to the great work done by these vendors in support of American agriculture and the American people,” said Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue in a statement. Some 17 million food boxes have been delivered to 3,200 nonprofit organizations since May 15, said the USDA.

The USDA did not say how many vendors had been retained or how many had been dropped. In the first round, there were reports of contracts going to companies that lacked experience in handling food or were awarded outsized contracts. “A few” vendors were added to the program after the resolution of technical errors, said the USDA. In a statement, it said it was “evaluating how to expand access to the program in areas that are underserved, and is in the final stages of determining cities and states who have been affected by the economic impacts of Covid-19 and where additional food boxes are in demand.”

Two food banks, one in West Virginia and the other in southern Ohio, said they have been effectively left out of the food box program, reported Farm and Dairy, which is based in Salem, Ohio. The head of Facing Hunger Foodbank, which serves 17 counties in West Virginia, Kentucky, and Ohio, said it has been difficult to link with a food box provider. The food bank had received one delivery from a supplier and has unresolved scheduling issues with another. “They’ve really made it impossible thus far to receive boxes from them,” said executive director Cynthia Kirkhart.

Freestore Foodbank, based in Cincinnati, said none of its longtime partners were selected for the USDA program. Four contracts were awarded in Ohio, all of them in the northern part of the state, said Farm and Dairy.

In its announcement, the USDA said it had ended work with some contractors “either in part because of concerns brought up during audits or for performance challenges. Additionally, some contracts were not extended, at the vendors’ request.”

When it created the program, the USDA said it would spend up to $3 billion on the effort. It awarded $1.2 billion in contracts for the first round.