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AMS calls for eligible vendors to supply new school pilot program

WASHINGTON — The Agricultural Marketing Service is looking for vendors for a new pilot program to be launched in January that will test buying fresh and fresh-cut fruits and vegetables with entitlement dollars for schools in eight states, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said last week.

During an hour-long conference call, USDA staff fielded questions from potential vendors and school purchasers on the new pilot program authorized under the 2014 farm bill that will permit states to use USDA entitlement dollars to buy unprocessed fruits and vegetables, including fresh-cut sliced apples, baby carrots and shredded lettuce.

The goal of the program is for schools to develop additional opportunities to buy fruits and vegetables by tapping commercial distribution channels with entitlement funds. Schools in the pilot states will be able to continue purchasing fresh fruits and vegetables through the DOD Fresh program.

USDA will announce the eight states at the end of the year, but the department is already accepting applications for “eligible vendors” from which states and schools can procure products, said Nate Sudbeck, AMS contract specialist.

State applications are due Sept. 30, and AMS anticipates announcing the eight states located in specific regions around the country by the end of the year, giving the green light for vendors to start shipping products in January.

Vendors will need to demonstrate they have a traceability system that ensures compliance with the 100 percent domestic origin requirement. Companies cannot commingle foreign with domestic product to participate, he said.

Companies will need to certify they are maintaining a food-safety program that meets Good Agricultural Practices/Good Handling practices, and AMS will be checking vendors to make sure they meet the requirements before awarding procurement.

Several participants during the Thursday conference call questioned how states will know whether vendors are still GAP certified during the length of the pilot. USDA officials explained the eligible vendor list is good for one year, after which companies will have to resubmit their application and GAP certificates to continue with the program.

USDA is relying on audits conducted by the AMS Specialty Crop Inspection Division or by a certification body benchmarked by the Global Food Safety Initiative to demonstrate vendors meet food-safety requirements.

Fresh cut produce suppliers are mandated to follow a Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point-based food-safety system, including a microbiological testing program. When asked whether testing results would be submitted to the department, a USDA official said that test results would not be shared with the government and that inspectors will verify only there is a testing program in place.

All eligible vendors also must have food defense plans in place.

States or schools that contract with eligible vendors and use entitlement funds for the value of the unprocessed fruits and vegetables are required to report monthly to USDA on the quantity and cost of each type of fruit of vegetable.

Eligible vendors do not have to be located in the participating state to gain access to the new marketing opportunity, Sudbeck explained, and any specific arrangements about sourcing with the schools, such as a preference for locally grown, will be left to the contracting parties, not USDA.

Responding to a question about the length of the pilot, USDA officials pointed out the 2014 farm bill did not specify an end date, and they anticipate the states selected for the initial pilot will operate for the duration, unless a state drops out.  

For more information about the pilot, contact: Nate Sudbeck at 202-720-3052, Nate.Sudbeck@ams.usda.gov.