(May 8) A handful of produce distributors in Philadelphia, hoping for strength in numbers, are aligning on behalf of the entire Philadelphia Regional Produce Market to secure government contracts.

Five companies based on the terminal market — Liberty Foods Inc.; Jesse Pitt Co.; Ellis Fleisher Produce Co.; Nardella Inc.; and Collotti & Sons Inc. — are spearheading an effort to secure contracts through a revamped Defense Commissary Agency system.

Beginning Oct. 1, the agency will handle procurement of fruits and vegetables on a contract basis for its 268 military stores from any produce company, regardless of size, that bids to become a supplier. The idea, the government says, is to streamline the process because produce won’t have to go through the Defense Supply Center Philadelphia.

Bids were due May 2.

The agency conducted test runs of the new system last year and said it increased produce tonnage sold at the commissaries by more than 25%.

Officials from the agency have said that because the process is streamlined, it also should result in fresher produce on commissary shelves, which, in turn, should spur sales.

The military spends about $350 million annually on fresh produce for its commissaries, according to the agency.

The government says it’s looking for winning bids to be able to provide wide regional coverage, which some prospective bidders have said would require them to form alliances with other distributors.

Officials with the Philadelphia companies offered limited comment about their effort.

“The only thing I’ll comment on is that the Philadelphia market is working on a government prime vendor deal with (the Defense Commissary Agency),” said Ellis Fleisher, president of Ellis Fleisher Produce. “It’s a management team that’s putting it together, but it’s still a market thing. It’s not really as much an individual thing. It’s the market. We’re representing the Philadelphia market to handle these new DeCA contracts.”