Maine did not receive any relief from Farmers to Families Food Box Program, officials say

By  | 

AUGUSTA, Maine (WABI) - Maine's Agricultural Commissioner is calling on the USDA to reopen the bidding process for a program that would provide support to Maine farmers, food distributors, and people in need.

Maine will not see any relief from the $3 billion Farmers to Families Food Box Program.

It's funded through the $2.2 trillion Cares Act.

The program allows the USDA to buy all kinds of food, like produce, dairy, veggies, and meat.

Distributors would then box the items and ship them off to families in need.

The Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Commissioner says no one in Maine was awarded a program contract because of a tight turn around time.

Commissioner Amanda Beal sent a letter to the USDA on Thursday.

She's asking for the bidding process to be reopened in the fall so Maine distributors have more time to apply.

"Farmers in our state have been significantly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic but are eager to continue to grow food for consumers. Likewise, many families in Maine need extra support during this unprecedented time, and it has been projected that food insecurity in Maine could increase by as much as 39 percent in 2020 due to COVID-19," wrote Commissioner Beal.

She'd also like to see more flexibility in the program so it can be adapted to the needs of the state.

Here is the full letter:

"Dear Mr. Summers,

We appreciate the efforts of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Agriculture Marketing Service (AMS) in rolling out the new Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP). This critical program aims to help provide direct support to farmers while maintaining the integrity of our food supply chain and ensuring Americans have access to healthy foods that they need.

Maine has a rich and diverse agriculture industry, comprised of producers and nonprofit service providers and other businesses of all sizes that are interested in participating in the Farmers to Families Food Box Program. Unfortunately, given the many logistical challenges of operating a new program and the short turnaround for the bidding process, no Maine distributors were selected for this program. Additionally, most of the distributors that serve Maine who were awarded contracts will not be supplying food boxes due to either capacity or quality and food safety concerns. We ask that the USDA strongly consider reopening the bidding process for this fall, which will give distributors and partners in Maine adequate time to thoughtfully develop a plan to implement this program.

Additionally, we suggest that the USDA consider enhancing flexibility of the design and assembly of boxes to allow for local producer boxes, filled with state-produced vegetables, dairy, and meat products that may be distributed across smaller regions throughout each state. Local partners know first-hand how to maximize efficiency, reduce food safety issues, and streamline labor and distribution methods. Additional flexibility of box design and assembly requirements will allow for more state partners to participate in the program.

Like all small businesses in Maine, farmers in our state have been significantly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic but are eager to continue to grow food for consumers. Likewise, many families in Maine need extra support during this unprecedented time, and it has been projected that food insecurity in Maine could increase by as much as 39 percent in 2020 due to COVID-19. We are confident that the Farmers to Families Food Box Program can help provide much-needed support for both, but only if the program can be adapted and flexibility be given to fit individual state needs.

Thank you for your thoughtful attention to these requests. I'd be happy to discuss these matters in further detail at your convenience.

Sincerely,

Amanda Beal
Commissioner
Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry"

Here is a statement from Congresswoman Chellie Pingree -
"Congresswoman Chellie Pingree issued the following statement on the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)’s Coronavirus Food Assistance Program eligibility details:

“Although all farmers in this country are dealing with the economic fallout of COVID-19, small and local growers who sell primarily to restaurants and direct-to-consumer markets are particularly hard hit as they typically don’t have the size or assets to withstand such dramatic shifts, nor do they regularly benefit from existing USDA subsidies. The CARES Act identified small and midsized farms as being specifically in need of relief but the USDA’s rulemaking process and contract awards have basically put the $16 billion Congress allocated for overall agricultural recovery out of reach to local and regional growers. It’s disappointing that despite bipartisan calls for this funding to take into account the diversity of our nation’s agriculture markets, the USDA rulemaking ignored this input, wasn’t transparent in its rulemaking, and has put local growers at a disadvantage during this pandemic.”"