Nikki Fried rejects Broward officials’ concerns; distributor of food for hungry will change

Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried has rejected concerns raised by a contingent of Broward elected officials and decided to proceed with a plan to change the organization that distributes government food aid to the hungry.

Out: Feeding South Florida, the Pembroke-Park based nonprofit that has been handling the federally funded Emergency Food Assistance Program in Broward and Palm Beach counties.

In: Farm Share, the Homestead-based nonprofit that has done the work in Miami-Dade County. It will have the contracts for all three South Florida counties beginning Oct. 1.

Fried’s decision was announced by Friday afternoon by her agency, the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. In a letter to Broward Mayor Steve Geller on Friday, Fried said she “personally reviewed” the selection process and scoring by the agency staff. “I am confident in the outcome of our open and transparent process. … No issues nor irregularities were found that would have impacted the outcome of this thorough process or would warrant a change or modification.”

The issue isn’t closed. “As a result of Commissioner Fried’s regrettable and inexplicable decision, Feeding South Florida will pursue all legal options available,” the organization said in a statement Friday. CEO Paco Vélez said earlier this month a court challenge was possible.

Feeding South Florida also said Fried’s decision “should be of great concern to taxpayers and policymakers” and is “is not in the best interest of the individuals and families who rely on” the program for food.

The contracts involve the federal program, administered by Fried’s agency, that 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.

Farm Share CEO Stephen Shelley, in a written statement, said the state Agriculture Department “properly determined that Farm Share has the expertise, resources, and experience” to run the program. He said Farm Share would “now move forward with preparations” to handle the food distribution.

On a recent conference call with county mayors and in a news conference, Geller said he expected the outcome. He said it “doesn’t mean Feeding South Florida will be going away in Broward County,” adding that the contract in question amounted to 10% to 15% of the organization’s funding. “They will have to cut back on their programs.”

Vélez said in an interview earlier this month that he didn’t know if losing the contract would result in employee layoffs.

The Agriculture Department notified Feeding South Florida about the decision, but a spokeswoman didn’t immediately have a comment Friday afternoon.

Geller said he doesn’t have anything against Farm Share even though county officials advocated for Feeding South Florida. “I don’t have a single bad thing to say about Farm Share. It’s another great group. We would have preferred that they stay with Feeding South Florida.”

Democratic elected officials in Broward and Palm Beach counties were sharply divided on the issue — and were strongly pushing Fried to side with them.

Broward elected leaders, including U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston, wanted to stay with Feeding South Florida. The Broward County Commission unanimously passed a resolution asking Fried to step in and reverse the pro-Farm Share decision from her staff.

Amid ferocious lobbying and public relations efforts from competing nonprofits, Fried’s aides said she would personally review the matter. Franco Ripple, the Agriculture Department’s communications director, said Fried spent hours with staffers going through every detail of the Farm Share and Feeding South Florida applications and the way the proposals were scored.

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The final order awarding the contract was signed Friday by Assistant Agriculture Commissioner Matthew Van Name.

Fried reviewed only the Broward contract, not the decisions involving other counties.

Last year, the Palm Beach County Commission asked Fried’s agency to sign separate contracts for services in Broward and Palm Beach counties, which had been one region with one contract. Fried’s office agreed, and earlier this year solicited applications for contracts across the state.

Officials familiar with the agency’s selection process said the decision to divide the South Florida contracts was prompted by Palm Beach County’s dissatisfaction about Feeding South Florida’s performance.

The scores were close. Out of a maximum of 150 points, Feeding South Florida had 138.8 in Broward and Farm Share had 140.2. In Miami-Dade the scores were 133.4 for Feeding South Florida and 134.2 for Farm Share. In Palm Beach County, Feeding South Florida had 133.8 points and Farm Share had 140.

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