Relative to the fresh produce industry, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is perhaps the most responsive federal government agency of them all.
OK, that may not be saying a whole lot with competitors like the Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration vying for distinction.
Yet it is hard to dispute the USDA’s industry-friendly vibe.
It is a well-deserved reputation, earned through years of putting in place and refining fee-based inspection and grading services, the Perishable Agricultural Commodities Act, marketing orders, marketing agreements, promotion boards and doling out dollars for commodity purchases.
The latest example of USDA responsiveness is the introduction of a pilot program designed to boost purchases of fresh produce for schools.
The pilot program will be available for schools in Michigan and 11 counties in Florida, said Rex Barnes, director of the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service’s commodity procurement activities.
The pilot program, which is being touted as a co-existing alternative to the Department of Defense fresh program, allows schools to use entitlement dollars to purchase fresh lettuce, apples, grapes, oranges, carrots and blueberries.
“We just want to allow the commercial system to work, because it works today,” Barnes said.
This year, the USDA entitlement for commodity purchases (for all commodities) is 22.25 cents a meal per student, which works out to $1.2 billion nationwide.
The food supplied by USDA purchases accounts for about 20% or less of the food served in schools, Barnes said.
The USDA’s commodity procurement department purchases between $400 million and $600 million worth of fruits and vegetables every year, but the paltry amount of fresh produce purchased (less than 10%) compared with processed fruits and vegetables has long been a point of contention with the fresh produce industry.
This new pilot program is a good faith effort to increase that ratio.
I am especially heartened by another new development at the USDA.
Like any government agency, the USDA is committed to self-preservation.
One obvious example of that is its standing requirement that all suppliers to the federal school lunch program (and the new pilot program as well) undergo a USDA good agricultural practices audit.
Until now, no other third-party auditor has been acceptable.
Like any buyer, the USDA wanted its way.
It made it that much more convenient that doing business with the USDA also created a little business for the USDA and state inspectors.
It appears the USDA is changing its tune on the issue of USDA-only GAP audits for federal commodity purchases.
Barnes said Nov. 17 that USDA is working on a plan where it will recognize other third-party auditors for vendors doing business with USDA. Barnes said the agency plans to have that rules revision by spring.
This is a welcome development.
While it is the nature of all auditors to believe that their own standards are the best, that sentiment is not necessarily shared by all who use various audit services.
No matter the affiliation, third-party auditors have varying degrees of expertise. An effort by the USDA to conform with the desire by industry for a standardized GAP audit standard should be applauded.
Some industry members are disappointed imports can’t be used in the pilot program.
The USDA is restricted by statute to use federal commodity procurement funds to purchase only U.S. commodities.
“We’re not here to support foreign production — we’re here to support domestic production,” Barnes said.
In fact, Barnes said the USDA has stopped buying pineapples since there is no longer supply of U.S. canned pineapples.
There is no reason to change the USDA “Buy America” mandate. Schools can use funds available to them to purchase imported produce if domestic supply is unavailable.
Barnes said the USDA would like to expand the pilot program to more states and add to the list of fresh produce items available to schools.
“Ideally, if everything goes great, it can be for all the fresh fruits and vegetable nationwide.”
You are preaching to the choir, Mr. Barnes, and they are shouting “Amen.”
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