USDA Remedies Federal Farmers to Families Food Box Failure in Vermont | Food News | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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USDA Remedies Federal Farmers to Families Food Box Failure in Vermont


Published February 17, 2021 at 12:59 p.m.

Vermont Foodbank January distribution  including local squash - COURTESY OF VERMONT FOODBANK
  • Courtesy of Vermont Foodbank
  • Vermont Foodbank January distribution including local squash
Updated on Tuesday, February 23.

On February 12, Vermont's congressional delegation sent a strongly worded letter to the United States Department of Agriculture about the failure of a New Jersey-based* federal contractor to deliver food assistance to Vermonters.  It bore results.

Global Trading Enterprises of Swedesboro, N.J., "has been directed by USDA to work with the state and the  [Vermont] Foodbank" to coordinate delivery of Farmers to Families Food Boxes, Foodbank CEO John Sayles said. The collaboration will start in March and also involve Willing Hands, a Norwich-based nonprofit.

According to the letter, signed by  Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.), Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.),  federally funded food boxes were being delivered to only five of Vermont's 14 counties and Global Trading Enterprises had "failed to communicate even the most basic information to the State of Vermont or Vermont Foodbank."
This state of affairs, the delegation continued, "will leave ... hundreds [of] Vermont families, without the food assistance they were promised under this federal program."

The $5 billion national Farmers to Families Food Box program launched in May 2020 in response to the spike in food insecurity during the pandemic. It was also intended to provide markets for American-grown food and generate business for regional and local distributors.

The first two main contracts for Vermont, totaling $13.9 million, were awarded to the Abbey Group, a family-owned food service management company based in Enosburg Falls.  The Abbey Group worked closely with the Foodbank and the state's emergency management team to distribute more than half a million boxes through August 2020.
Subsequent Vermont contracts have gone to out-of-state companies. When Global Trading Enterprises received its contract on January 19, Sayles said it did contact his organization, but the conversation dead-ended when it became clear that the New Jersey company had no plan to do daily deliveries or distribute the boxes directly to those in need, as the contract required.

The Foodbank had already planned for the possibility that the federal program might end with 2020, leaving it to fill the gap. "Looking at the landscape in Vermont in the middle of winter, the need [was] still incredibly high," Sayles said.

For January through March, the Foodbank subcontracted with the Abbey Group and coordinated with the state to deliver 28,224 boxes through 19 sites around the state. The 30-pound food boxes are more than half full of Vermont products, Sayles said.

Community donations to the Foodbank cover the $2.2 million coast, although Sayles is talking with the state about possible reimbursement from remaining CARES Act funds.

Both Foodbank-funded boxes and federally funded boxes will be distributed in March. "We don't mind having more food out there," Sayles said.

The recent $9 million gift to the Foodbank from philanthropist MacKenzie Scott did not directly contribute to the effort, but Sayles acknowledged that the donation "has certainly given us the kind of breathing room to be able to make some really needed intense investments."

Learn more about the Farmers to Families Food Box program online or call (802) 476-0316.

Correction, February 22, 2021: Global Trading Enterprises was misidentified in an earlier version of this story. The company is based in New Jersey.