After outcry over food distribution contract, Nikki Fried says she’ll review choice made for South Florida

After an outcry from a range of elected officials, state Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried plans to review her agency’s decision not to continue using Feeding South Florida for distribution of federal food aid to the hungry.

Broward Mayor Steve Geller told his colleagues Tuesday that Fried promised to reexamine her agency’s decision.

“I’ve had discussions, emails, texts with Commissioner Fried, and she has advised me — and told me that I could publicly state this — that she will, next week when she is in Tallahassee, be reconvening a group where she will be personally reviewing the scoring,” Geller said, adding that he told her about “scoring mistakes that I believed were clear.”

Fried’s spokesman, Franco Ripple, confirmed the review. “Commissioner Fried has had several conversations with Broward County leaders to explain the unbiased selection process by expert department staff, and has offered to personally review the results.”

That represents a shift. Broward County Commissioner Nan Rich said last week that she had called Fried “to ask her to consider a review and rescoring of the applications, and she declined to do it.”

Several Democratic Broward county commissioners and state Rep. Mike Caruso, a Palm Beach County Republican, said last week Feeding South Florida, based in Pembroke Park, was the only nonprofit capable of fulfilling the contract to run the funded Emergency Food Assistance Program in the two counties in the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1.

The agency awarded the new contract to Farm Share, based in Homestead, which already has the contract for Miami-Dade County.

On Tuesday, Ripple provided more of an explanation than last week for the decision. “Because Commissioner Fried’s top priority is ensuring that no Floridian goes hungry, the department in January opened this contract to new bids, following ongoing performance complaints regarding the current vendor [Feeding South Florida],” he said via email.

Rich, Geller, U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, and others made their objections public last week in interviews and in a resolution the Broward County Commission passed unanimously. Their objections came the same week Fried announced her candidacy for the 2022 Democratic nomination for governor.

The elected Democrats in Broward, the most Democratic county in the state, said they didn’t want the issue to spill into the primary campaign. (Geller is a supporter of Fried’s primary opponent, Charlie Crist; Rich isn’t a Crist fan.)

Feeding South Florida had challenged the agency’s decision, but the state Department of Administrative Hearings said in a ruling last week that it didn’t have jurisdiction and sent the matter back to Fried’s agency.

Citing that decision, Farm Share wrote Monday on Twitter that it considered the matter closed.

“Thank goodness that’s all over with. Case was dismissed last week. Farm Share is ready to serve and feed Broward County!! We are happy to see that @FDACS and @NikkiFried were vindicated and that their expert opinions were upheld,” the organization wrote.

It wasn’t closed for Broward’s elected officials, or for Feeding South Florida, whose CEO, Paco Vélez, said last week his organization would consider taking the issue to court.

In a statement Tuesday, Feeding South Florida said there were “clear errors with the process and scoring…. We’re grateful that Commissioner Fried has heard the concerns of Broward County and is personally committing to a thorough review and rescoring.”

Ron Sachs, a public relations consultant working for Farm Share, said in an online video presentation Tuesday evening that Feeding South Florida is a disgruntled losing bidder engaged in an “orchestrated campaign” seeking to “undermine” and “besmirch the proud reputation” of the winning bidder.

Fried’s spokesman said Tuesday that, “The contract was evaluated the same as all others, our department met with Feeding South Florida and listened to their concerns about the results, and the scoring was reviewed and validated numerous times by multiple department divisions. We are confident that our transparent, impartial evaluation has led to the best-qualified vendor to feed South Florida’s families in need, a decision with which a judge last week agreed our department can move forward.”

Among the issues Geller said Tuesday hurt Feeding South Florida:

  • Feeding South Florida submitted one copy of information to the agency, which then copied it and distributed to the people reviewing the applications.

Two of the reviewers said the information “wasn’t in the package,” Geller said. “Well, if FDACS was making the copies, it’s not possible that Feeding South Florida could have omitted that” if some committee members saw it and others didn’t. “So clearly that was a mistake.”

An official familiar with the selection process said all the reviewers had the same digital versions of the information. Two found the answer wasn’t responsive to the question posed, which didn’t mean the information was missing.

  • Comparisons of the two organizations’ trucks weren’t accurate representations of their capacity.

He said information he received from Feeding South Florida shows it has between 50 and 60 trucks for Broward, Palm Beach, Miami-Dade and Monroe counties.

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Farm Share — which Geller described as “the other proposed vendor, which I won’t identify although we all know who they are” — has between 50 and 60 vehicles, he said. But those are spread throughout the state.

And Geller cited other truck issues, according to information he said he received from Feeding South Florida. He said the number included 10 tractors, which pull trucks, and 15 trailers, for a total of 25. “Well, it’s really 10,” Geller said. And, he said “the majority of [Farm Share’s] vehicles were pickup trucks and vans, as opposed to tractor-trailers or box trucks, which is what Feeding South Florida had.”

Stephen Shelley, CEO of Farm Share, said in the evening video conference that the application described its vehicle fleet as required, and it did not have to “identify a truck home location.” He said the agency moves vehicles throughout the state as needed. Shelley also said the trailers “can become fully operational vehicles at any time” because Farm Share can lease tractors when needed.

Geller made his comments at a Broward County Commission meeting, speaking after Sheriff Gregory Tony praised Feeding South Florida and the commissioners for their attempts to get the contract renewed. Tony said the Sheriff’s Office had repeatedly partnered with Feeding South Florida on food distribution sites that have distributed millions of pounds of food.

The program supplies food to low-income households and food banks, soup kitchens and food pantries, plus organizations that prepare food to serve to people in need. The term emergency in the program’s name refers to the situation faced by a family that needs food, not to an emergency such as a hurricane or pandemic.

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