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Maine will receive no aid from a $3 billion food distribution program meant to help farmers offload excess product and get it to needy individuals, even as the number of Maine people seeking help putting food on their plates is on the rise.
The Farmers to Families Food Box program gave the U.S. Department of Agriculture the authority to work with food distributors so they could purchase produce, dairy, meat and milk products and then send those to food pantries and other nonprofit organizations. It is funded through the $2.2 trillion CARES Act that passed Congress in late March.
The idea was to help meet the needs of food pantries — which are experiencing increased demand during the coronavirus pandemic and having a hard time meeting it due to decreased inventory — and of food distributors, which are experiencing decreased demand due to food service industry shutdowns.
But no Maine distributors were awarded funding, Jim Britt, spokesperson for the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, said. Most of the 28 awards for the Northeast went to companies with locations in New York, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut, according to the USDA. Any large distributors that did apply did not include Maine in their applications.
The lack of funding through the food box program will exacerbate the burden placed on food pantries, said Kristen Miale, president of Good Shepherd Food Bank, the state’s largest food bank that distributes food to hundreds of pantries across the state. The food bank typically works with supermarkets, but donations from those sources have decreased 50 percent due to the pandemic, she said.
“The double impact of a program like this was that we thought we could support Maine businesses and feed Maine people,” she said. “To not be able to leverage any of those federal dollars is concerning.”
Part of the problem stems from Maine’s food distribution network, which is served by either large companies or much smaller, local businesses, Miale said. The program was initially geared toward larger distributors, she said, which may have dissuaded smaller businesses from bidding.
Packing requirements may have also presented a challenge for smaller bidders, U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Democrat who represents Maine’s 1st Congressional District, said.
Few Maine food distributors have the ability to aggregate and repack food for the boxes the food would be sent in, Pingree, a member of the House Committee on Agriculture, said. She also said the application process was only open for a few days, making it difficult for small organizations to place a bid and easier for large distributors who already participate in federal contracting.
Native Maine Produce and Specialty Foods was one Maine distributor that applied, Jimmy Davolio, vice president of sales and marketing, said. But the USDA didn’t choose the Westbrook distributor despite what Davolio described as a “low bid” to distribute 15-pound fruit and vegetables boxes.
“For me, this is all about getting people employed,” he said, noting the company had to lay off staff to make up for revenue losses. “I’m sure everybody is in the same boat, but it’s disappointing we weren’t considered.”
One of the Good Shepherd’s partners did receive an award to distribute produce, but an expected four- to five-day shipping time meant the food’s shelf time would be too limited to distribute by the time it arrived.
Maine’s agriculture department is advocating for another round of bidding to give regional distributors a chance, Britt said.
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