When the Feds get Focused, the Kids get Fed

August 05, 2015

Written By: Christina Muniz, Farm to School/USDA Fellow

I have been working on developing a user friendly guide to help NH farmers and food producers navigate the system to become approved vendors to the USDA. The idea is that if we can get more NH businesses signed up then they will be able to sell their food to the USDA for programs like the National School Lunch Program, and, in turn, there will be more local NH foods in NH public schools.

How to Sell to the USDA Ag Marketing Service Throughout this process there have been many questions that have arisen. Questions like: “What do you mean there are two separate processes depending on what foods you sell?”, “So what you are saying is that a vendor needs to sign up with 5 different agencies just to get approved?”, “Wait, after they sign up for all this stuff and submit an application, they then have to have a pre award onsite capability assessment?”, “What does that even mean?” All of these questions ultimately lead to the real question: “Why?”

Why, is the system so disjointed, complicated, redundant? Well that is a very good question and there are many very good answers to it like: because these programs started in the late 30s and 40s for different purposes, different agencies had control over them, or because we want to make sure the food the government buys is safe, healthy, and made in the USA.

I could go through all of these complicated answers and you would get very bored and stop reading this blog post. Instead, I am going to just skip to the good news. The process for becoming a vendor to the USDA just got a whole lot easier.

As of July 26, 2015 the Agriculture Marketing Service’s Commodity Procurement Division and the Farm Service Agency’s Domestic Procurement Division have merged. “What does this mean?!” you exclaim, both excited and confused. Well, I will tell you, this means that the two divisions of the USDA that used to buy food for feeding programs like the National School Lunch Program will now be one. Food producers will only have to go through one system instead of two, and that is what we call efficiency!

“Efficiency” is not a word we often think of when thinking of the federal government, or any government, these days, but the USDA continually seeks to be more efficient. The announcement of this merger is very new and many people, myself included, still do not really know what will change and what will stay the same, but the simple fact that they are merging shows a foresight and eagerness to be efficient that is often lost in large government agencies.

USDA Application process The Agricultural Marketing Service can trace its roots back to the 1920s when the Bureau of Markets and the Bureau of Agricultural Economics were merged together. The Farm Service Agency traces its origins to the 1930s and the great depression, although it did not get its name until the 1990s. As the decades have rolled on the two divisions of the USDA have gone through many changes and we finally ended up with the system we currently have.

The USDA buys food through a competitive bidding process participated in by vendors the USDA has already approved to do business with. One of the complications is that depending on what type of food your company produces will change whether you sign up to be an approved vendor with AMS or FSA. This new merger changes all of this for the better.

[Text Box:] Now, the two similar but different systems will be one. This might not necessarily mean that the process to become approved will change (hopefully it does not change too much because my entire summer has consisted of trying to outline these systems and it would be nice if my work was useful, at least for a bit), but it will mean a single website with all of the information needed in one place and an integrated, experienced staff who are now able to communicate better with each other and work together more, say it with me now, efficiently.

The government moves slowly and agencies have become a tangled web that no one wants to attempt to unwind, but in this case the government just made everything less complicated. The staff at the USDA I have worked with this summer are shining lights in a maze. They work tirelessly to make the process they oversee function in the best possible way to achieve their goals and support American agriculture. So to them I say, Thank You.

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