BARRE, Vt. (AP) — A change in contractors for a federal food distribution program has led to thousands of meals not being provided in September, according to the Vermont Foodbank.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Farmers to Families Food Box Program is aimed at helping people in need and farmers during the coronavirus pandemic. The USDA recently changed from using the Abbey Group, a contractor located in Vermont, to two out-of-state companies, Costa Fruit & Produce and Sysco, in the latest round.

“Suddenly, the Department of Agriculture pulled the rug out from underneath that system,” said Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vermont, according to NECN-TV.

The Abbey Group had set up a system to ensure deliveries arrived directly to recipients, even in rural areas. Costa and Sysco do not use the same system and were not really designed to operate in such a small state with limited refrigerator and freezer space, said the Foodbank's Nicole Whalen. And they don't buy from Vermont growers for the program, the Foodbank said.

The Foodbank had hoped to see 16,000 food boxes distributed in September but did not. That led to a spike in demand at other food services, Whalen said.

“During the monthlong gap in the program caused by the USDA, the Foodbank saw record numbers of people visiting one of our other food distribution programs. Nearly double the usual turnout. People were scrambling for other places to turn," she said. "This is a sneak peak at what we are likely to see when the Farmers to Families Food Box program ends for good in the end of October."

The program had previously distributed tens of thousands of food boxes at airports around the state during the pandemic, with much of the food sourced locally.

Vermont’s congressional delegation sent a letter to U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue last month raising concerns.

The USDA said in a statement that it allocated boxes based on the state’s need.

“Fewer boxes will be delivered under this round due to the shift in combination boxes; however, the number of pounds of food being delivered is on par with previous rounds,” it stated earlier this month.



Vermont reported 14 new cases of the coronavirus on Thursday for a statewide total of 1,903 since the pandemic began. Six of the new cases were in Chittenden County, and two each were in Washington, Lamoille and Orleans counties. Addison and Windsor counties had one new case each.

A total of 641 travelers were being monitored, according the Vermont Department of Health. The total number of deaths in Vermont from COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus, has remained at 58 since late July.