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Boston wholesaler disappointed to lose food box contract

costa food box
This combo food box was packed this fall at Costa Fruit & Produce.

Costa Fruit & Produce Company BB #:101237 Boston, MA, was among the produce companies who got shut out of round 4 of USDA’s Farmers to Families food box program.

And that’s a shame, said Sean Buchanan, vice president of sales, because the company had gotten so much better at it.

“It was a great experience overall, but it was tough because it kept changing,” he said November 6. “We got good and efficient with the produce box, and then it changed [to the combo box in round 3].”

“A lot of us take pride in what we were doing because there’s a learning curve, and it was difficult, but produce companies are so nimble.”

Costa participated in all previous rounds and had a $19.8 million contract for round 3 for 426,264 combo boxes delivered to non-profits in Massachusetts, New York and Vermont, which Buchanan said Costa Produce filled all of.

He said the company has heard that some others didn’t fill all their contracts.

He also said he’s heard that price might have been an issue on who received round 4 contracts.

“We had last-mile delivery on our orders, and some others take those out,” he said. “That would reduce your box cost by at least $2.”

Costa’s round 3 contract worked out to $46.44 per box, and the round 4 contracts had closer to $40/per box average cost.

Whitsons Food Service Corp. received the round 4 contract for those states, with a $42.9 million contract to deliver 1.1 million boxes, which works out to $39 per box. It hadn’t participated in previous rounds, but it had a USDA approved Basic Ordering Agreement for combo boxes.

Whitsons Food Service primarily supplies schools and couldn’t be reached for comment.

Some in the Northeast have been critical of USDA’s food box changes, including a New Hampshire Congressional delegation that asked USDA to address concerns with the program.

Buchanan said many of the non-profit groups that have worked with Costa through the food box program have been calling, but all the company can do is refer them on.

“Now we tell the non-profits, we can’t do anything,” he said.

He said Costa reached out to Whitsons to see if they wanted to buy some of the excess produce, meat and dairy that Costa can no longer use.

“We offered them a trailer full of milk at a great price, but they didn’t bite,” he said.

Buchanan said Costa Produce is frustrated not to get a round 4 contract because it doesn’t know what it could have done better.

“Life is life, and we’re not crying,” he said. “But we’d like to know how it works. They can award it on price or on experience. We were up and running. Awards went to a lot of people who haven’t done this before.”

Buchanan said even with the disappointment in not continuing to supply the program, he’s hopeful the companies who got the contracts can fill that need.

“We have people lining up who can’t access food,” he said. “In a country like America, we never thought we’d see people at their wit’s end at this scale.”

Greg Johnson is Director of Media Development for Blue Book Services