USDA’s Work To Support Supply Chain, Feed Underserved Continues

By Mollie Van Lieu, Vice President of Nutrition and Health, International Fresh Produce Association

Originally printed in the January 2022 issue of Produce Business.

To help support food supply chain issues and feed children and families around the country, USDA recently announced a series of programs targeting regional and local food systems, including the nearly 100,000 schools that participate in USDA’s school meal programs. In early December, the Department announced $400 million for states and tribal governments to partner with producers to purchase food for food banks, nonprofits, and schools. Additionally, the Department announced up to $1.5 billion for schools to help secure food needed to serve students.

For schools in particular, this year has been a challenge. A fall 2021 survey conducted by the School Nutrition Association found that the top concerns of meal programs were around availability of products (including both a shortage of certain products and manufacturers’ decision to discontinue certain products) and lack of availability of packaging and supplies. In addition to challenges in the private foodservice sector, many schools have faced cancellations of USDA-supplied commodities and have had to rely on trips to local wholesale and big box retailers to cobble together enough food for their students. Like many other sectors of the economy, 95% of meal programs report experiencing a labor shortage. While the School Nutrition Association survey did not cover commodity specifics, it is believed that proteins, fluid milk, and paper products are among the more difficult items for schools to procure. For the most part, schools have not experienced disruptions with fresh produce in the same way as other commodities, although delivery schedules due to trucking shortages and limited cold storage infrastructure at schools have placed a strain on the supply chain.

Specifically, USDA’s plan for schools includes up to $1 billion in payments to purchase unprocessed and minimally processed domestic foods. Schools will have considerable autonomy and decision-making in how this food is procured. Another $300 million will be used by USDA to identify the commodities in most demand by schools and purchase directly for distribution to schools under the larger umbrella USDA Foods Program. However, given that there are existing challenges getting purchased USDA Foods delivered to schools, it is unclear how USDA will ensure delivery. Finally, $200 million will be made available to states to partner with local producers and distributors to provide local and regional foods. The latter program will closely mimic the $400 million Local Food Purchase Assistance Cooperative Agreement Program (LFPA) announced by USDA in December.

The LFPA program provides grants directly to states and tribal agencies to enter into cooperative agreements with local producers (defined as within their state, or within 400 miles of the distribution sites) to purchase and distribute food to nonprofits and schools serving those in need. The goal for the program is to expand both the types of producers that generally participate in USDA purchasing programs, and the nonprofits to help get food to areas that have historically been underserved by traditional food banks and other emergency feeding organizations.

Through much of the pandemic in 2020 and earlier in 2021, community groups and food banks were distributing food through the Farmers to Families Food Box Program until the USDA sunset the program in June. While LFPA is not a replica of the food box program, it is designed to provide alternate models of food distribution and be more inclusive of state and local producers. States and tribal governments have until April 2022 to develop cooperative agreements with state and local partners and apply directly to USDA for the grants.

It is important to understand that there will be no nutrition parameters for the LFPA program; the only stipulation is that the food is grown, raised, and processed within the state or region. In contrast, USDA’s TEFAP Fresh Produce Box Program – created after the closure of Farmers to Families – does specifically target fresh produce. On December 21st, USDA announced $15 million in contracts to produce distributors to deliver fresh produce boxes through next summer. Despite this progress, there remains opportunity to improve the availability of a wide variety of fresh produce in USDA distribution programs by increasing the funding available under the program and using a values-based purchasing model that considers factors other than lowest-cost bid. Nevertheless, given the disruptions to supply chains over the last 18 months, it is clear that USDA is exploring ways in which their programs can operate differently than before the pandemic. Time will tell if these new investments yield systemic changes to USDA’s procurement and feeding programs.