COVID-19 has meant many Californians are struggling to stay healthy, keep their jobs and put food on the table. In this moment, organizations that provide food to the needy are serving more Californians than ever before.
So why has the state chosen now to dramatically change the way commodities are distributed to food banks?
The California Department of Social Services is awarding a multimillion-dollar, no-bid contract to an unproven entity – CalFoods Logistics – that formed about five months ago. As of Jan. 1, CalFoods Logistics will be responsible for distributing millions of pounds of food to food banks throughout California, despite not having a warehouse suitable for fresh food or any experience running an operation of this magnitude.
I’m ringing the alarm bell for anyone who will listen.
For 30 years, the nonprofit organization that I lead, California Emergency Foodlink, has distributed food from the U.S. Department of Agriculture on behalf of the California Department of Social Services. With our fleet of trucks, we help feed 400,000 families every year, delivering dried and fresh goods to food banks from our warehouse in Sacramento, a facility that was gifted to us by the federal government and which we humbly use rent free.
It would be easy to dismiss our concerns as sour grapes, but the reality is that the state has not acted appropriately. Government officials and the public should know what’s happening, regardless of who receives the contract.
First, under state law, The Emergency Food Assistance Program is supposed to be overseen by a 22-member advisory board subject to open meeting requirements. But as far as we can tell, this board has never existed. The governor, Assembly speaker and Senate president pro tem are all responsible for making appointments to the board. Why doesn’t this advisory board appear on the governor’s appointments list?
Instead of the state-required advisory board, the Department of Social Services made up its own rules, establishing the Fresh Look Advisory Group last year to review The Emergency Food Assistance Program food distribution. The meetings were not open to the public and the agendas and minutes were kept on the California Association of Food Banks’ website, a private organization.
Second, the Department of Social Services failed to notify the USDA of substantial changes to the program, as required by federal law. We know this because in September, the USDA gave the state 30 days to get its act together.
Third, we met with the Department of Social Services last month to discuss their transition to a new provider – an alarming meeting because of the simplistic, naive questions they asked about how we order and store food, where we deliver to and how we invoice. The answers to those questions should have been known to the state, considering that the purpose of the Fresh Look Advisory Group Committee was to review the food delivery system for efficiencies.
Instead, the man who ran the Fresh Look Advisory Group Committee, an employee of the California Association of Food Banks, established CalFoods Logistics in June 2020 and was awarded the state’s multimillion-dollar distribution contract. CalFoods Logistics is so new that its official address is a residence in Concord and its “warehouse” is a recently rented facility in Woodland that appears to lack refrigeration.
Is this really the best provider to reliably distribute millions of pounds of food to our state’s neediest? A competitive, transparent process did not happen, and now officials can’t even do the basic task of delivering food.
I urge the Newsom administration to investigate why these state employees have seemingly gone rogue. The issue of hunger and food insecurity is more important than ever with millions of Californians facing unemployment and an uncertain future. Please don’t allow vulnerable families to become the collateral damage of bureaucratic mismanagement.
John Healey is chairman and CEO of California Emergency Foodlink. He wrote this commentary for CalMatters.