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USDA approves contracts for ‘Food Box’ program; dairy purchases to top $317 million

Progressive Dairy Editor Dave Natzke Published on 10 May 2020

The USDA has approved $1.2 billion in contracts to support U.S. farmers and communities in need through the Farmers to Families Food Box Program. The funding includes $317 million specifically for dairy products, more than $700 million for fruits, vegetables and meat products, and another $175 million in combination boxes of fresh produce, dairy or meat products.

“This is a new, innovative approach to provide critical support to American farmers and families, and USDA moved as expeditiously as federal procurement rules allow to stand up the program and solicit offers,” said U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue. “We were pleased to see the abundance of interest from both food distributors and nonprofit organizations. Within days, the Farmers to Families Food Box Program will begin distributing surplus food, while safeguarding food safety techniques, to communities across the country where it’s needed most.”

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A full list of approved suppliers is posted on the Farmers to Families Food Box Program website.

On April 17, Perdue announced the program as part of the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program, developed to help farmers, ranchers and consumers in response to the COVID-19 national emergency. Read: USDA announces Coronavirus Food Assistance Program; no to DMC and supply management.

Through this program, USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) is partnering with national, regional and local suppliers, whose workforce has been significantly impacted by the closure of restaurants, hotels and other food service businesses, to purchase up to $3 billion in fresh produce, dairy and meat products.

Initially, the program will purchase $461 million in fresh fruits and vegetables, $317 million in a variety of dairy products, $258 million in meat products and $175 million in a combination box of fresh produce, dairy or meat products. The AMS may elect to extend the period of performance of the contracts via option periods, dependent upon program success and available remaining funds, up to $3 billion.

Suppliers will package these products into family-sized boxes, then transport them to food banks, community and faith-based organizations, and other nonprofits serving Americans in need from May 15 through June 30, 2020.

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Additional information on the Farmers to Families Food Box Program, including webinars and an FAQs, is available on the AMS website.

Leaders of major U.S. organizations were pleased with the announcement.

“Innovative solutions are demanded in these unprecedented times, and I applaud USDA for its actions to provide nutritious dairy products to families in need,” said Jim Mulhern, president and CEO of the National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF).

“Dairy farmers are looking for real marketplace solutions to ensure that dairy products continue to get to those who need them, and this program helps accomplish that,” said John Rettler, dairy farmer from Neosho, Wisconsin, and president of FarmFirst Dairy Cooperative.

“The need for healthy, wholesome food products is astronomical right now. We applaud the work of USDA for this new Farmers to Families Food Box Program, helping get high-quality dairy foods to those that need it most,” said Jeff Lyon, FarmFirst general manager.

"The International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA) applauds the USDA for moving quickly, aggressively and creatively to formulate the Farmers to Families Food Box program,” according to a statement released by Michael Dykes, IDFA president and CEO. “Based on what we’re hearing from IDFA members who have been notified of winning proposals, the [USDA] has embraced businesses of all sizes and from all across the country. For our dairy processors who have lost their food service and institutional business, IDFA is grateful that USDA plans to purchase $317 million in dairy products – from milk and butter, to cheese and yogurt – by June 30. Our hope is that these purchases, alongside traditional Section 32 and entitlement program purchases, spur demand for additional dairy products and thereby keep the dairy supply intact throughout this crisis.

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"The COVID-19 pandemic has deeply damaged the nation’s economy and brought financial hardship to dairy producers and processors alike,” Dykes said. “In April, co-ops and other handlers took measures to reduce supply. Those efforts were painful across the supply chain but also shrunk the gap between demand and supply. Combined with stronger than anticipated export demand as well as food service demand beginning to pick up, the dairy purchases announced today by USDA will bring greater certainty to the dairy industry. Still, IDFA will continue to urge Congress, the White House and USDA to use as many tools as possible – as quickly as possible – to bring relief to the dairy industry without creating any long-term market repercussions.”

Other action

Also on May 8, three U.S. House members introduced a proposal they said would streamline the donation of food by farmers to food banks across the country. The Farm to Food Bank Enhancement Act would provide $25 million for states to expand or establish new Farm to Food bank projects as part of The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP). The federal funding would be used to cover up to 100% of harvesting, processing, packaging and transportation costs for covered commodities. Authors of the proposal included U.S. Reps. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio), Jim Costa (D-California) and Stacey Plaskett (D-U.S. Virgin Islands).

On May 4, Perdue had announced plans to purchase an additional $120 million of dairy products under “Section 32” provisions for distribution to communities nationwide. Those purchases will begin in June for July delivery. Read: Weekly Digest: Announcement of more USDA purchases boosts milk futures prices.  end mark

Dave Natzke
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