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USDA Food Box Lessons: Recommendations for the future

Infographic showing the USDA partnering with farmers, distributors, and non-profits to provide access to food during COVID.

None of the issues raised by participants or others are deal breakers for future USDA-private industry programs.

They provide opportunities to build upon the successes of USDA’s Farmers to Families Food Box Program. Strategic modifications rather than wholesale transformations are in order.

Below are five supply chain-oriented recommendations for improvement, based on conversations with industry experts.

Focused— To fully benefit from the supply chain capabilities of the produce industry, future programs should specifically target fresh fruits and vegetables. Combination boxes should be avoided as product expertise is sacrificed.

“We stayed involved until the program morphed into the combination boxes,” says Joan Daleo, president at St. Louis-based Ole Tyme Produce, Inc., BB #:119116. “The barriers to doing a combination box are much higher than the barriers to doing boxes related to your normal course of business.”

Flexible— To minimize headaches and delays, USDA should give contractors the flexibility to make reasonable food box adjustments, which aligns with both seasonal product availability and the needs of box recipients.

Melissa Ackerman, president of Produce Alliance, LLC BB #:159218 in Chicago, IL, adds an important element on recipients and flexibility: “Collaborate with the traditional entities that [provide food] to make sure you’re putting product into the areas needing it most. I am also very passionate about making sure we’re creating culturally appropriate boxes.”

Fast, fresh flows— To ensure freshness is maintained during delivery to nonprofit agencies, future programs should clearly articulate last-mile delivery requirements and enforce payment responsibilities. The current program suffered from inconsistent protocols.

“There was a real problem with last-mile cost,” says Kate Fitzgerald, principal at Fitzgerald-Canepa, LLC in Washington, DC.

“The rule was that contractors were supposed to cover last mile costs, but we heard in the last rounds some unscrupulous companies didn’t. The produce industry’s recommendation is that USDA establish clear and consistent prices for delivery and that contractors not be asked to negotiate with the recipient agencies.”

Fastidious— To provide maximum impact, USDA programs should demand quality over quantity. Food boxes should provide a nourishing variety to recipients, balancing ready-to-consume and shelf stable produce.

“New programs need to be nutritional initiatives, where we focus on getting healthy, safe nutritious foods into communities that don’t normally get them,” says Steve Brazeel, CEO and founder of SunTerra Produce, BB #:165824 headquartered in Southern California.

Fair— To ensure no organization is given a disproportionately sized contract, awards could be capped at a percentage of current revenues. Efforts should also be made to engage small and medium enterprises as was done in the initial round of the Food Box Program.

Andrew Scott, director of marketing and business development for the Nickey Gregory Company, LLC BB #:164545 based in Atlanta, GA, recommends: “Spread it around; don’t give one company a $40 million bid; give eight companies $5 million of business.”

These five recommendations align with the conclusions of the United Fresh Produce Association’s BB #:145458 Produce Box Working Group.

More than 100 industry professionals contributed to the 30 recommendations to guide new food box program development.

This is an excerpt from the Supply Chain Solutions department feature in the July/August 2021 issue of Produce Blueprints Magazine. Click here to read the whole issue.