Food & Farming

Federal Program to Supply Food Banks Chops Local Growers in Latest Round of Contracts

Recent changes have brought into question the program’s priority of supporting local food systems

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Though the federal Farmers to Families Food Box Program is now contracting with out-of-state growers, Rhode Island food policy leaders are finding new ways to connect local farmers and fishermen to the state’s emergency food network. (istock)

Recent changes to the Farmers to Families Food Box Program, a federal food-insecurity relief effort borne out of the coronavirus pandemic, is bringing more grub to Rhode Island. But some say it’s left local growers behind.

From mid-May through August, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) awarded the nonprofit Farm Fresh Rhode Island $767,250 to contract with local farmers to provide about 1,000 boxes of food a week to the Rhode Island Community Food Bank. During these months, the food bank also received and distributed about 20,000 boxes from Gotham Greens, a hydroponic urban farm in Providence, Original Pizza, a Boston-based wholesale supplier of pizza supplies, and the Costa Fruit & Produce Co., a Boston-based produce distributor.

But the USDA’s third round of contracts, awarded Sept. 17, showed that Delaware-based Vincent Farms would be providing 10,000 to 12,000 food boxes to Rhode Island from late September through Oct. 31. Aside from Costa Fruit & Produce, no other New England distributors or growers were listed as contractors for the third round — a major change from the first two rounds of contracts, which included at least 12 New England-based organizations. In this latest round of contracts, Vincent Farms, which was awarded a $42 million contract, is the primary supplier of food boxes for most other New England states.

“I’m happy for the fact that we’ve got so much food coming to Rhode Island,” said Ken Ayars, chief of the Department of Agriculture at the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM). “I’m disappointed that it wasn’t a local organization that won [the contract].”

Yet the increase in food boxes — Vincent Farms is delivering to the state nearly four times the average weekly number of boxes that the Rhode Island Community Food Bank received this summer — is meeting a heightened demand.

“As long as we move them along quickly, these boxes are a great way to supplement the food we’re giving out with fresh produce and other items, especially during this pandemic when we’re distributing 30 percent more food than the same time last year,” Hugh Minor, director of communications for the Rhode Island Community Food Bank, wrote in an email to ecoRI News.

This growth in food insecurity caused the USDA to implement the food-box program at the pandemic’s peak in April. The agency intended to connect food-insecure people with regional and local farmers facing a collapsed distribution chain, as restaurants, hotels, and colleges closed. The USDA contracted farms and distributors to buy produce, meat, and dairy products for distribution to food banks and other nonprofits.

“I do think the box program got a few farmers through the summer,” said Sherri Griffin, co-executive director of Farm Fresh Rhode Island. “I got a few emails from them saying, this has been amazing. How can we keep this up?”

However, the third round of contracts has brought into question the program’s priority of supporting local food systems, and what the best solutions are for providing emergency food supplies.

“It’s a top-down solution. … It’s opposite from, we need food, how will we get it?” Griffin said. “The end result, hopefully, is that people who are food insecure have fresh fruits and vegetables and healthy dairy and meat. That’s what I want. Do I also want local growers to have had that contract? Yes, I do want that. But that’s not in the cards right now.”

Changes to the application shut out small farms
The first several months of the program allowed flexibility for Rhode Island food banks and local growers, according to Griffin. Distributors such as Farm Fresh and food banks were allowed to determine how large the boxes would be, instead of having the size set by the USDA. This was important because many food-insecure people in the state don’t have cars, Griffin said, so boxes had to be small enough to carry.

While the first round specified that contracts could be awarded on factors other than lowest price or highest technical rating, the third round indicated that contracts would be awarded to “the lowest priced technically acceptable proposals.”

According to Griffin, smaller farms and distributors are more likely to be left out when low prices are prioritized.

Additionally, boxes in the third round had to be between 30 and 40 pounds, too large to pick up on foot. Farmers also were required to have a federal “Good Agricultural Practices” certification, but many local Rhode Island farmers only have state-level certification. And the combination box required dairy and meat, even though local food banks had asked Farm Fresh to avoid dairy due to refrigeration shortages, Griffin said.

“Most agencies don’t have the space to store a large amount of refrigerated food, so we can’t send the boxes out in advance,” Rhode Island Community Food Bank’s Minor wrote.

Farm Fresh decided only to apply for a produce box, instead of a combination box. Griffin said she hasn’t heard back from the USDA as to whether Farm Fresh has been awarded a contract.

According to a USDA spokesperson, the third round of applications shifted to address feedback about the program’s inadequacies. This included concerns that some areas of the country weren’t receiving sufficient food boxes. While the first two rounds made awards based on the capacity of the vendor, the third round modified the program to ensure all areas of the country had access to food boxes, using poverty and unemployment statistics to allocate boxes to each state. Additionally, the specification of box weight was meant to ensure that nonprofits and recipients receive similar benefits.

Shifting from local to out-of-state food boxes
As the boxes from Vincent Farms began arriving in late September, there was a brief rush to find sufficient refrigeration space for the 10,000 to 12,000 boxes of food that were coming per week. As of Sept. 29, only 5,000 to 6,000 boxes had distributed.

“We did learn from the COVID experience; there’s challenges with distribution and with storage,” DEM’s Ayars said. “Then you have a massive amount of food coming up in a short period of time, which may exacerbate some of those challenges.”

As of Oct. 6, Nathaniel Vincent, special projects manager for Vincent Farms, said the farm was close to hitting its target number of boxes per week.

“We’re certainly on pace to get our box volume hit by the end of October,” Vincent said. He noted that the farm hadn’t faced significant challenges with finding refrigeration and distribution capacity.

Despite the program’s successful scale up, leaders in the state’s food network are still unaware of the exact distribution network Vincent Farms is using, said Nessa Richman, network director for the Rhode Island Food Policy Council. Lack of communication between the food provider and the council has meant the organization has been unable to assist with box distribution throughout the state.

“There’s a black box, because the provider of the boxes isn’t in Rhode Island, doesn’t know the Rhode Island emergency feeding system or the state’s decision-makers,” Richman said. “If we’re forced to work with partners who aren’t part of the conversation, it can be really difficult to know if the food is having the impact it could be. It makes sense from the perspective of feeding people effectively to give more, smaller contracts.”

But Vincent noted that larger contracts can save taxpayer money while increasing the number of boxes available for food-insecure families.

Renewed effort to prioritize local producers
Though the Farmers to Families Food Box Program is now contracting out-of-state, Rhode Island food policy leaders are finding new ways to connect local farmers and fishermen to the state’s emergency food network. A $100,000 grant awarded by the USDA’s Local Food Promotion Program to the Rhode Island Food Policy Council on Oct. 13 aims to develop and scale up existing pilot programs that link food producers to food-insecure people.

These programs include an effort to buy imperfect produce from farmers for food banks, an initiative in which food pantries distribute seafood chowder cooked by a local restaurateur, and an endeavor to bring whole, locally caught fish to food-insecure communities.

“There’s underappreciated fish — scup, hake, whiting — that don’t have a market, but there are communities, specifically immigrant communities, for whom these fish are culturally appropriate food,” Richman said.

The program started out providing just 10 households with fish, and has since increased to between 50 and 60.

In addition to growing these programs, the grant will also help identify the scale at which it makes sense for fishermen and farmers to participate in such programs. Richman said this first step toward localizing emergency food systems is also vital to increasing Rhode Island’s resilience to climate change.

“We saw how … supply chains can get disrupted in the short term because of the pandemic.” she said. “We also know that agricultural production patterns are going to be changing over the next 20 or 30 years because of climate change. We need to re-localize and regionalize our food system in order to make sure we are resilient to those types of shocks.”

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