Last week, USDA opened up the solicitation period of the “Farmers to Families Food Box Program.” This is the program designed to connect excess food products with people who need them, while compensating the farmer or rancher who grew that product. With foodservice markets shuttered across the country thanks to COVID-19, many producers are struggling to find a place to sell fresh and perishable products. This program is designed to give farmers another outlet, while alleviating the increased demand on foodbanks and other community food distribution centers.
This program is significantly different than other USDA buy-up programs. Rather than buying truckloads of a bulk commodity or making a new batch of government cheese, USDA is using $3 billion of the money allocated to it by the CARES act to put together consumer-ready boxes of a variety of fresh produce and cooked meats. It would look something like this: someone in the supply chain has good relationships with a number of producers, as well as a non-profit organization that distributes food. That person works with those producers to put together – literally boxing up – a collection of ready-to-use items. Then, that person takes those boxes to the non-profit at a predetermined date and time, where there is already a line of people ready and waiting to take the boxes home and stock their fridge.
USDA has stated that the key to this program is building on existing relationships: it’s not tailored to a single producer with a single commodity, but rather to rallying multiple producers and different links on the food supply chain together to get a usable product into the hands of someone who needs it. The program also tries to account for the limitations of non-profit food distribution organizations: namely, a lack of cold storage and volunteers. That’s why there’s such a strong focus on a pre-boxed variety of food that arrives at a scheduled time, ready for the end user to transfer it directly from the truck to the trunk.
How will producers get paid?
The Farmers to Families program is a federal contract program. That means that the government will contract with a “prime contractor” (in this case, the person responsible for procuring, boxing, and delivering the products) for an amount predetermined by the USDA-approved contract. It’s most likely that these prime contractors will work with producers to settle on a price for each of the products that goes into the box, and this price will be locked in by the USDA contract.
What products are acceptable to fill the boxes?
USDA has released a chart outlining the kinds of products that it has the authority to buy. They include fresh fruits and vegetables, dairy products such as natural and processed cheese, instant or UHT milk, yogurt, and butter, fluid milk in gallons or half gallons, and pre-cooked meat, so long as it is pork or chicken. Boxes must contain a variety of product from one or all of the categories. In addition, products must be 100 percent U.S. grown and processed.
The Bottom Line
This is a highly-specialized program, and one unlike anything that USDA has undertaken before. It may be some time before we see it have a significant on-farm impact. But in the meantime, producers and others in the supply chain who have the capacity to take advantage of it should do so as quickly as possible.
Entities who are interested in participating should visit the Frequently Asked Questions page on the USDA’s Families to Food Box site. To view the Request for Proposal (RFP) and learn how to submit a proposal, go to https://www.ams.usda.gov/selling-food-to-usda/farmers-to-families-food-box.