Cancel OK

Food box future on new Ag Secretary Vilsack’s plate

With President Biden’s Agriculture Secretary nomination Tom Vilsack expected to be confirmed Feb. 23, it’s worth looking at what we’ll see at the start of his leadership.

This will be Vilsack’s second go-around, having served as President Obama’s ag secretary, when Biden was vice president.

Robert Guenther, senior vice president of public policy for United Fresh Produce Association BB #:145458, said the produce industry had a strong relationship with Vilsack and USDA staff in the Obama years.

While the Trump administration’s USDA the last four years generally benefitted the broader agriculture industry, Vilsack’s USDA tended to know fresh produce issues better, Guenther said.

He said there’s a good chance people from within and well known by the produce industry will join the administration.

As far as what Vilsack will address first, Guenther said the Farmers to Families Food Box program has to be high on the list.

The December spending bill passed by Congress allocated billions to USDA, but the Biden administration suspended all ag program spending in it for a 60-day review, Guenther said.

All except the food box program, which was allocated $1.5 billion, with $354 million in contracts approved through the end of February.

“I highly doubt USDA extends it as it is,” Guenther said.

However, he’s optimistic it will be continued in a different form. He said many non-profits have said the 30-40 pound combo boxes of fresh produce, meat and dairy have been hard to work with, especially compared to smaller produce, dairy and meat only boxes earlier in the program.

He said United’s members’ wish is a return to produce-only boxes, in the box format that goes straight into consumers’ car trunks.

“I firmly believe that’s our No.1 ask – going back to produce-only,” Guenther said.

He said United Fresh has formed a working group to advise USDA as it makes decisions on the future of the food box program.

Conversations about it could start as soon as this week, as it’s the last week that has contracts allocated.

Greg Johnson is Director of Media Development for Blue Book Services