USDA Food Bank Program Helping America's Downtrodden Wedding Planners
Back when this pandemic got started, we reminded you that Republicans are the very last people you want in power when there's a national crisis. They don't believe government works, and instead, they insist private enterprise is the best solution to everything, whether that makes any sense or not — see for-profit prisons, for example. And now that we have a pandemic and economic crisis that's caused massive unemployment and huge disruptions to the food supply chain, the US Department of Agriculture is "partnering" with private companies to get food to food banks — except, as Politico reports, a lot of the companies getting big contracts don't really seem to have much experience working with farms, or with food banks. One huge contract is going to a company that specializes in catering high-end weddings and business conferences. Wedding planners again?
When widespread shutdowns were ordered to slow the spread of COVID-19, vast amounts of food that would normally go to restaurants and schools suddenly didn't have a market, even as demand for food from grocery stores increased and people who'd been laid off from their jobs needed help from food banks. People were in need, but social media was full of stories about milk being dumped and photos of mountains of potatoes being left for people to come and grab if they could get to the pile.
So the USDA started a $3 billion "Farmers to Families Food Box Program" aimed at getting produce, meat, and dairy products to food banks. The idea was to buy those perishable products, box 'em up, and distribute them to food banks and other nonprofits, reducing the waste and feeding people. Hooray!
On NPR this morning, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue insisted the program would be partnering with the "best of the best" companies in food distribution, "small and large food distributors all over the country whose market has essentially disappeared because their customers are shut down."
But weirdly, as Politico details, a lot of the first $1.2 billion in contracts didn't go to distributors that already knew all about moving foodstuffs from farms to people.
When the Agriculture Department late Friday released the names of the companies selected for the program, numerous industry leaders were not on the list.
"It's puzzling," said Michael Muzyk, president of Baldor Specialty Foods, a distributor based in New York. Muzyk, who also serves as chairman of the United Fresh Produce Association, did not apply for a contract, saying he felt the program was ill-designed.
But don't worry! While the Ag Department wouldn't answer specific questions about some of the seemingly strange companies given contracts, it did send Politico a statement insisting all the contracts were by the book, and there'd even be a "robust audit program" to make sure everything was on the up and up.
So now we get to the part where you wonder why the hell some of these companies are getting contracts. Why, it's almost as if we'd seen this script before, with the fucked up federal response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. Check back in a few months and we're sure to find piles of food rotting in a warehouse somewhere, or a story about a one-person operation contracted to deliver hundreds of thousand of food boxes. Ryan Zinke isn't at the Interior Department anymore, but we won't at all be surprised if we learn about contracts going to Whitefish Dairy or the Whitefish Rutabaga Consortium.
Now, Politico notes — perhaps too generously — that it's possible USDA didn't give contracts to companies that know what they're doing out of some desire to avoid the scandal involving all those "small business" loans going to giant corporations. But that wouldn't explain why contracts went to companies that don't seem to be prepared to do large-scale food distribution at all.
Muzyk of Baldor Specialty Foods said it's clear that some companies applied without understanding what's really required to purchase, pack and distribute fresh food at the scale the program requires. It requires proper cold storage capacity and trucks as well as food safety practices, particularly for produce which is vulnerable to contamination.
"Under Covid, it's 10 times more important that you are handling product safely," he said.
Muzyk said some companies awarded contracts have already called him to ask if he can make the boxes for them. He said he declined. [Emphasis added — Dok]
That sounds like a Trumpworld plan, all right. Bypass those who know what they're doing and send money to middlemen who go to the people who know what they're doing.
The craziest example involves that $39.1 million contract with the wedding planners, a Texas marketing outfit called "CRE8AD8" — get it? "Create a Date" for your big event. That company's services include "planning weddings and chartering private jets and yachts for C-suite executives for destination events," so surely they're exactly the right people to put together a few hundred thousand boxes of fresh produce, meat, and dairy products to go to food banks and other charities for a territory "stretching from Arizona to Arkansas."
Is the company really going to be able to deliver? CRE8AD8 CEO Gregorio Palomino said in a press release on Facebook that this is right up the company's alley, at least aspirationally.
We felt this was an opportunity to help the community I live in as well as where we call our headquarters home. We didn't know the potential or even to what extent we could help, but we saw an opportunity to do some good during this challenging time and took a chance, we had no idea we'd be asked to help on this level. It's truly awesome.
Gosh, that's specific. Bet they're ready to use their existing operation to get all those food boxes out, starting today! Oh, hold on — CRE8AD8 is cre8ing at least some of the operation from scratch. The Facebook announcement says the company will be hiring between 75 and 125 "logistics, production, assembly, transportation, and line personnel" to handle the demand ("No experience is needed") for the contract, until June 15. It may be one of those bring your own private jet deals.
Palomino assured Politico by email that his company has "more than 20 years of experience in logistics, execution and fulfillment," and will be partnering with a "culinary team" that knows all about this food safety and distribution stuff. Hope food bank users like little tiny quiches and other canapés!
One of the real food distributors Politico spoke to, Brent Erenwert, who's the CEO of a Houston produce outfit called Brothers Produce, said "The wedding planner is the ultimate comedy of errors," and predicted, "This deal is destined to crash before it takes off." Politico does note that Erenwert applied for a contract under the program and didn't get one, but that he said he's mostly worried the program will leave both producers and food banks hanging.
But surely that is just sour grapes rotting in a warehouse for lack of a buyer. Maybe he's just jealous of these other companies, which are clearly ready to do this vital work:
Other industry members and nonprofit leaders have quietly groused about other companies on the list with unclear connections to the food supply, such as Yegg Inc., a California firm that offers "business finance solutions." According to its website, it provides export credit insurance and helps companies obtain capital equipment including construction, mining and farm machinery.
Yegg was awarded $16.6 million to supply fluid milk and dairy boxes. The company did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Other companies that are unfamiliar to those in the food industry have also raised eyebrows. Travel + Well Holdings LLC — a small company based 50 miles north of San Francisco that sells hand sanitizers, lotions and other wellness products in airports and online — was awarded $12 million to distribute fresh fruit and vegetable boxes in the Western region.
Sounds good to us! We bet everything will work out just peachy, or at least peach-scented hand sanitizer-y.
Now, if this "food box" stuff sounds vaguely familiar, that might be because way back in 2018, roughly a decade ago in real time, the Trump administration proposed something similar. That great idea, which never went into effect, involved replacing roughly half of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (aka food stamps) with a scheme where instead of shopping for themselves, poor families would be sent a monthly box of canned and boxed commodities so they could eat what the USDA and the lowest bidders chose for them. Office of Management and Budget director Mick Mulvaney, who had previously complained that Meals on Wheels sounds nice but is just wasted on old people, described the plan as a "Blue Apron-type program," at least if Blue Apron cut your food budget in half, sent you stuff you may or may not have wanted, and gave you no choice in the matter.
On Twitter, Politico reporter Eric Geller, who isn't among the reporters bylined on the story, raised a really good point: "I feel like an inspector general investigation would unearth some pretty interesting explanations for this situation." We're just speculating here, but we'd bet a jar of surplus pig's feet that some of the companies chosen for Food Boxes II might have already been on some dusty list from that earlier effort.
Maybe that's just a bad guess, and completely off base. If there were any inspectors general left in this administration, we might find out.
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Doktor Zoom's real name is Marty Kelley, and he lives in the wilds of Boise, Idaho. He is not a medical doctor, but does have a real PhD in Rhetoric. You should definitely donate some money to this little mommyblog where he has finally found acceptance and cat pictures. He is on maternity leave until 2033. Here is his Twitter, also. His quest to avoid prolixity is not going so great.