United Fresh, dairy, chicken glad about USDA purchase program; pork, beef mum
After the Agriculture Department held a webinar with the produce, dairy and meat industries Tuesday about plans to buy their products for distribution to food banks as part of its coronavirus response, produce, dairy and chicken officials expressed enthusiasm for the program while pork and beef groups declined to comment.
Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced last Friday that USDA will spend $3 billion over six months to buy $100 million per month in fresh fruits and vegetables, $100 million per month in a variety of dairy products and $100 million per month in meat products. The distributors and wholesalers will then provide a pre-approved box of fresh produce, dairy, and meat products to food banks, community and faith-based organizations, and other nonprofits serving Americans in need.
On the webinar, the Agriculture Department’s Agricultural Marketing Service, which will be in charge of the program, said the agency plans to issue requests for proposal by April 24, wants them returned by May 1, and hopes to award contracts by May 8 and begin buying and shipping by May 15.
About 4,200 industry officials and company executives signed up for the webinar and about 3,800 participated, Robert Guenther, a senior vice president of the United Fresh Produce Association, said in a follow-up webinar for United Fresh members.
Mollie Van Lieu, United Fresh senior director of nutrition policy, said that AMS officials gave a rundown of what products the agency wants to buy and in what form. The officials noted that food banks lack volunteers because many were senior citizens who would be in danger of becoming exposed to the coronavirus if they come to work, so USDA wants to send the food banks packages of food that can be given directly to people who pick them up. Van Lieu also said that AMS stressed that the agency can buy only domestic products for this program, but that the school meals program does allow purchases of produce not grown in the United States and the purchase of foreign produce if domestic prices are too high.
Van Lieu said that the officials want precooked meat, packaged dairy products and a mix of strawberries, blueberries, apples, pears, cucumbers, radishes and potatoes and bagged salads.
Officials did not give details on pricing, but Guenther said that the lowest bidder will not necessarily win every contract. Guenther noted that about $52 billion a year normally goes into the away-from-home market including restaurants, schools and institutions, and that this program will absorb part of that production.
In a joint statement today, Guenther and Van Lieu said, “The ‘Buy Fresh’ program will purchase $100 million per month, for six months, in fresh produce from regional and local distributors whose workforce has been significantly impacted by the closure of restaurants, hotels, and other food service entities. We commend USDA’s AMS for establishing this unprecedented program that will utilize the fresh produce supply chain, from growers to distributors, to deliver consumer-ready fresh produce boxes to organizations serving the rising number of families in need.”
Both the National Milk Producers Federation, which represents farmers, and the International Dairy Foods Association, which represents processors, praised the program.
National Milk President and CEO Jim Mulhern said, “We are pleased USDA is trying to move quickly to provide dairy products, meat and produce to the growing number of food-insecure Americans, many of whom are out of work as a result of the pandemic.
“The concept of utilizing existing food distributors that have been idled by the virtual shutdown of the food service sector is an innovative approach that could help broaden the reach of these efforts.
“Vast quantities of dairy products are sold through food service, so our industry has been hit particularly hard by all of this. It’s a win-win if we can get more nutritious dairy products into the hands of people who need them, so we hope the department will quickly ramp these efforts up to move even larger quantities of dairy foods into food banks and other distribution channels.”
IDFA President Michael Dykes said, “First, IDFA would like to thank USDA for their creative thinking in establishing this new program that will support the dairy industry and help those in need. The dairy industry is excited to work alongside partners in the public, private and nonprofit spaces to get this program off the ground and bring wholesome, nutritious dairy foods to people experiencing hunger or food insecurity as a result of the coronavirus crisis. For dairy processors who have lost their foodservice business, IDFA is grateful that these USDA purchases will go to those most in need of nutritious food and spur demand for additional dairy products. Although more details are forthcoming, the product mix discussed today by USDA is robust and includes fresh fluid milk, UHT milk, many types of natural and processed cheeses, yogurt, and butter, among others. We were also pleased to see dairy products incorporated into different box types, including one box for fluid milk, another for dairy product varieties, and a mixed category to add dairy products to boxes with fresh produce or chicken and pork products.”
A spokesman for the National Chicken Council said the poultry group had been represented on the webinar. “We’re pleased that chicken was included in this initial purchase, and we expect more in the next round. We thank Secretary Perdue and AMS for their support. This is a new process, and we look forward to seeing the details of the plan in the coming weeks,” the spokesman said.
A spokesperson for the National Pork Producers Council said, “NPPC looks forward to further specifics on USDA’s COVID-19 relief package” and stressed that, while the program of payments to hog farmers “will offset some losses for some farmers, they are not sufficient to sustain the varied market participants, including those who own hogs as well as thousands of contract growers who care for pigs. All of these participants have made sizable investments in a U.S. pork production system that is the envy of the world. Many generational family farms will go bankrupt without immediate financial aid.”
A spokesman for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association said, “We didn’t participate in the webinar, so I’m unable to provide a comment.”