USDA gave Food Box contracts to novices, say lawmakers

Concerned that “entities with little or no experience in agriculture or food distribution” were given contracts in the Farmers to Families Food Box program, the Democratic leaders of three House Agriculture subcommittees asked the USDA how it will ensure the work is performed. The USDA terminated a $40 million Food Box contract last week with a small California produce company that sells avocados on the internet, according to a published report.

The contract with California Avocados Direct was among the awards that has generated criticism about the Food Box initiative, which is intended to buy surplus fresh produce, dairy products and pre-cooked chicken and pork to be packed into family-sized boxes for delivery to food banks and other nonprofit organizations. The California company has sales of $1-$2 million. Other contracts went to an event planner in San Antonio and a company operating health and wellness kiosks at airports.

Ben Holtz, who owns California Avocados Direct, told Produce Blue Book that he will contest the “stop work” order from the USDA. Holtz is a fourth-generation avocado grower and has served on the California Avocado Commission.

In a letter to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, Reps. Marcia Fudge, Jim Costa and Stacey Plaskett asked for details on how USDA officials selected contract winners, how deeply they checked the background of “offerors,” how it would monitor performance and what it would do if a contract is not met.

“We share USDA’s goal of providing effective and timely assistance to families, farmers and food supply businesses like food distributors,” said the letter. “We are concerned, however, that contracts were awarded to entities with little or no experience in agriculture or food distribution and little capacity to meet the obligations of their award.”

Bruce Summers, head of the USDA agency overseeing the Food Box, told a trade group that USDA awarded contract based on the technical information submitted by offerors, their past performance, their ability to carry out a Food Box contract and the prices offered. Each offeror provide three references for similar contracts and orders completed in the past three years, he said.

“USDA may elect to extend the period of performance of the contracts, via option periods, and/or solicit additional proposals, dependent upon the program’s success and available remaining funds – up to $3 billion,” wrote Summers.

The USDA awarded $1.2 billion of Food Box contracts one week after the deadline for offers. It has said it will spend $300 a month on the program.