Business & Economy

Farmers to Families food program under review after criticism from Vermont delegation

Food is distributed in Burlington last May by the Vermont National Guard, the Vermont Foodbank and Vermont Emergency Management. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

The Farmers to Families Food Box program is now under review, after Vermont’s congressional delegation flagged “significant problems” with the program’s implementation. 

The situation is being evaluated by Bruce Summers, administrator of federal Agricultural Marketing Services, according to Rep. Peter Welch’s office. After the Vermont Democrat spoke with Summers on Thursday, the delegation followed up with a letter on Friday to Agriculture Secretary-designate Tom Vilsack.

By providing pickups at only seven locations in the entire state, and in only five of Vermont’s 14 counties, the New Jersey-based Global Trading Enterprises is failing to meet the terms of its contract, causing “significant problems,” says the joint letter sent by Welch and Sens. Patrick Leahy and Bernie Sanders.

The congressional delegation wrote that Global Trading submitted a bid that is “seemingly too low for them to deliver food boxes to the areas promised under the contract. As a result, they are failing to meet the needs of hungry Vermonters, falling back on an insufficient plan. … This will leave nearly 250 towns, and hundreds of Vermont families, without the food assistance they were promised under this federal program.” 

The letter asks the USDA to “investigate all violations to this point and open the contract for rebidding for March and April.”

In a press release, the delegation calls the program “disorganized, inadequate and opaque.”

“Our offices learned this week that Global Trading Partners told one local food shelf leader she would need to drive to the next county and wait in line for hours, just for the possibility of receiving boxes when the delivery truck arrived,” the letter states. It also noted that the USDA contract requires Global Trading “to provide last-mile delivery.”

Farmers to Families, now in its fifth round, is designed to address food insecurity, which has risen dramatically during the pandemic. Recent UVM surveys indicate that one in three Vermonters has experienced some form of food insecurity since the pandemic began. That’s triple the rate of food insecurity in 2018. 

Criticism of the USDA contract with Global Trading Enterprises began almost as soon as it was awarded. While there are networks already in place to distribute food, Global Trading Enterprises hasn’t been using them, according to the letter.

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The Vermont Foodbank is a prime example. It has been involved with distributing the USDA food boxes since Farmers to Families began May 15. But Vermont Foodbank CEO John Sayles said it’s not currently working with Global Trading, and in fact has urged the USDA to find a better partner for food distribution.

“It would be valuable to have a vendor that was more interested in figuring out how to get these boxes distributed around the state in a way that we know how to do already, that we’ve been doing already,” Sayles told VTDigger.  

“The food boxes are getting here,” he said; the problem is that “they’re not being distributed as broadly and equitably as they could be.”

Sayles said the Foodbank will “continue to try and figure out how we can work with this vendor.”

Sayles said he was pleased with the first round of the program, which used a Vermont vendor called The Abbey Group that was able to incorporate Vermont products in the boxes. But that hasn’t been possible with other vendors, according to Sayles.

John Sayles, executive director of the Vermont Foodbank, speaks during a press conference in South Burlington in September 2019. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

In part, that’s because government contracts are often awarded to the lowest bidder. In this case, the congressional delegation said, Global Trading Enterprises seems to have gone too low, and it’s not getting enough money to do the job well.

In the first three rounds, Norwich nonprofit Willing Hands got a contract to put food boxes together, said Gabe Zoerheide, executive director of the group.

“We were working with local vegetable growers. Pretty much all of what we purchased was very locally grown,” said Zoerheide. “It had a really nice economic impact for Vermont farmers.”

But in subsequent rounds, Zoerheide said, Willing Hands didn’t even bother applying because the program had changed and the price point was too low. 

“We don’t have the ability to source food that cheaply, whereas larger contractors can do that,” he said.

Now, Willing Hands is a “last mile” distributor; it receives boxes from Global Trading Enterprises and takes them to various food shelves in Vermont and New Hampshire.

He said switching contractors for Farmers for Families can be problematic, as inexperienced vendors try to figure out distribution avenues almost overnight.

While other vendors paid between $1.50 and $3 per box distributed, Zoerheide said that hasn’t been the case with Global Trading Enterprises. But even though Willing Hands doesn’t get that money, “we’ll do it,” Zoerheide said. “We’ll take the food and move it out. The most important thing is folks in our community get fed.”

Willing Hands now distributes commodity food packaged in large quantities for the vendor. That might mean a single meat package of 3 to 4 pounds or a 4-pound container of cottage cheese. 

The portions are designed for a family of six, not a single person living alone.

“Even if that meets the price point,” Zoerheide said, “even for a couple, I’m sure some of it goes to waste.”

The boxes have gotten bigger too, from 12 to 13 pounds when Willing Hands was providing boxes to up to around 30 pounds now — a difficult haul for a senior citizen to carry to the car.

“I’m glad somebody decided that they wanted to do this,” Zoerheide said of Farmers to Families. “But they should fix it. They can make it better.”

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Amanda Gokee

About Amanda

Amanda is a graduate of Harvard University, where she majored in romance language and literature, with a secondary focus on global health. She grew up in Vermont and is working on a master’s degree in liberal studies at Dartmouth with a concentration in creative writing.

Email: [email protected]

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