Vt. Congressional delegation: Why move food aid out of state?
Vermont’s congressional delegation has raised concerns about the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s decision to move the state’s Farmers to Families contract, part of a pandemic program that helps feed people in need, from a Vermont-based food distributor to two out-of-state companies.
In a letter sent Friday to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, Sen. Patrick Leahy, Sen. Bernie Sanders and Congressman Peter Welch questioned the decision to give the contract to Boston’s Costa Fruit & Produce and Texas-based Sysco Foods. Earlier in the pandemic, two rounds of the program’s Vermont contracts had been held by the Abbey Group, a family-owned food distribution company based in Enosburg Falls.
Giving the contract to out-of-state providers raises questions about the ease of on-the-ground delivery and the speed with which Vermonters will receive food boxes under the program, the lawmakers wrote.
“We are also concerned that the number of families reached will decline based on this new contract and that Vermont farms will not be able to participate in the program as they have before,” they said.
According to Seven Days, the USDA chose in mid-September not to grant the latest Farmers to Families contract to the Abbey Group — even though the group successfully distributed thousands of food boxes under two contracts worth $13.9 million in the months prior.
Farmers to Families is a $4 billion federal program established in May that helps feed families affected by the pandemic by connecting them to local food sources. Through the program, which has been renewed twice, vendors like the Abbey Group join with nonprofit partners to distribute food boxes to people in need.
Under its Vermont contracts, the Abbey Group worked with the Vermont Foodbank to distribute thousands of boxes of food per day — a quantity that at one point doubled the amount of food the Foodbank was distributing pre-COVID, according to Foodbank CEO John Sayles.
“The Abbey Group has been a great partner,” Sayles told VTDigger. “All the dairy in the boxes was Vermont dairy. A lot of the produce was from Vermont. The meat products were not, but there’s no one in Vermont that made that product.”
The Foodbank expected to hear from the USDA by late August whether the Abbey Group’s application for the program’s final period had been approved. But not until Sept. 16, Sayles said, did the Foodbank finally get word that the contract for the final period — which runs from the beginning of September through Oct. 31 — had instead gone to Costa and Sysco.
The result has been delays in food distribution to some areas. Sayles said Costa will not provide boxes to five counties — Essex, Grand Isle, Orange, Windsor and Orleans. The Foodbank heard from Sysco on Tuesday that it could service those five counties, “but because of how long it took for them to connect with us, there isn’t time to set up a new program with them in time to get it up and running in October,” Sayles said.
In the meantime, the Foodbank is paying the Abbey Group independently to distribute boxes there.
Leahy, Sanders and Welch raised concern in their letter that Costa’s and Sysco’s distribution capabilities will leave some Vermonters behind. A particular area of concern, they wrote, lies in “last mile” delivery — “distribution not only to countywide distribution centers, but to multiple distribution centers each day in order to decrease lines and integrate households into the existing charitable food system to ensure continued food access,” they wrote.
Sayles said Costa and Sysco are unable to provide the level of distribution service provided by the Abbey Group.
“Costa can deliver the boxes to a location, but will not provide staff to support a distribution event to get the boxes to people who need it,” he said. To compensate, he said, Costa is paying $3.10 per food box to the Abbey Group to complete final distribution work.
In a press release attached to the letter, Welch said the USDA had failed in its communications, too.
“I am disappointed that USDA would switch to two out-of-state vendors without even communicating with the Abbey Group or the Vermont congressional delegation,” Welch said in the release. “I will continue to demand answers from USDA about why they made this last-minute decision that could have serious consequences for Vermont families, producers and communities.”
In an email to VTDigger, David Carle, Leahy’s spokesman, said that the delegation is “pressing for an explanation of how the USDA dealt with awarding the last round of contracts.” But the immediate focus, he said, is ensuring that Vermonters get the food boxes they are entitled to under the program.
The joint letter also shared worry over out-of-state companies’ ability to keep local food flowing to Vermonters through the program. While the Abbey Group’s food boxes were comprised largely of Vermont-produced food, Costa’s boxes will not include Vermont products, Sayles said.
According to the USDA’s list of the latest round of approved contractors for the Farmers to Families program, Costa received a $19.8 million contract to distribute 426,000 food boxes in New York, Massachusetts and Vermont; Sysco has a $114 million contract to distribute more than 2 million boxes in 32 states.
Asked about the Farmers to Families contract change at a press conference Tuesday, Gov. Phil Scott said he shares the congressional delegation’s concerns.
“This has been a beneficial program for Vermont and Vermont farmers and local producers,” Scott said. “We hope that the providers will continue to use local farmers and local entities and local products in the near future.”
Looking back on results in the Farmers to Families program in Vermont since May, Sayles said he believes there was a better way to do things.
“Setting up this kind of convoluted structure where the USDA is contracting with distributors who then contract with the farmers, and then the boxes have to be built and transported, and people have to take time out to drive to a certain location at a certain time … is just not the way to do this,” Sayles said.
What would have been preferable, Sayles said — and what the Foodbank continues to advocate for — is an increase in 3SquaresVT benefits, which gives Vermonters credits to buy food from local stores.
“We’ll gladly distribute these boxes, and are grateful that Vermonters are getting some extra food to eat. But there was an easier way to do this that the USDA ignored,” he said.
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