Feeding South Florida has filed a written protest requesting a formal administrative hearing after losing a bidding process for a contract with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
The agency, led by Commissioner Nikki Fried, awarded a contract in late March for The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) to Farm Share instead. TEFAP is organized under the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and aims to provide nutritious foods to low-income families.
That contract was granted through an RFP bidding process that Feeding South Florida argues was conducted improperly. Feeding South Florida specifically alleges Farm Share misrepresented its capacity to fulfill the deal.
“Farm Share’s response misstates its capabilities and resources for purposes of carrying out the contracted services, which resulted in scores that are clearly erroneous, contrary to competition, arbitrary, and/or capricious,” the document requesting a formal hearing alleges.
Feeding South Florida alleges Farm Share overstated its storage capacity, its available fleet to move food around, its cold storage infrastructure capabilities and several other areas.
But both the Agriculture Department and Farm Share Marketing Director Gil Zepeda are disputing those claims.
“Shame on them,” Zepeda said of Feeding South Florida’s decision to contest the process.
“Nikki Fried, the Commissioner, and the Department of Agriculture have made a decision. They have tabulated. They have gone through it, through a huge process. This isn’t something that they just make a decision on in an afternoon over coffee. This is a rigorous process,” Zepeda said, adding, “I know that our RFP was perfect.”
Franco Ripple, Agriculture Department spokesperson, also provided a statement to Florida Politics standing by the agency’s decision.
“Helping Florida’s families in need access healthy nutrition is one of our department’s top priorities, one shared by the talented partners and vendors with whom we contract,” Ripple said.
“Our department employees are experts in evaluating bids to maximize taxpayer investment, and we are confident in our outstanding, transparent bidding process for all publicly-funded programs and initiatives.”
The issue may go beyond just the TEFAP program and the Agriculture Department’s choice of vendor. Commissioner Fried has her eyes on a 2022 gubernatorial run, and Feeding South Florida has garnered significant political support in the region. The Department’s move is seen by some as picking a fight with the organization, and several South Florida Democrats aligned have expressed frustration with Fried for her agency’s decision.
“It appears that (Feeding South Florida) did answer questions, and included information, for which they did not receive credit,” said Broward County Commissioner Nan Rich, who spoke to Fried about her concerns with the agency’s choice.
“My primary goal here is to make sure that we have a contract with an organization that can best meet the needs of Broward County. And to my way of thinking, that would be Feeding South Florida.”
Rich said she’s worked with both Feeding South Florida and Farm Share in the past, but that she’s partnered with Feeding South Florida more over the past year-plus during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We’ve really worked with Feeding South Florida because they already had a tremendous infrastructure in Broward County,” she said. “(Farm Share) just didn’t have the infrastructure in Broward that Feeding South Florida does. So when I heard about this scoring and everything for the TEFAP, I was kind of surprised myself.”
Commissioner Fried’s agency decided differently, and Farm Share maintains it has the full ability to fulfill the contract. The bidding process included a scoring rubric aimed at measuring each organization’s ability to fulfill the needs of TEFAP. Feeding South Florida’s petition calls the Agriculture Department’s scoring of the bids “clearly erroneous, contrary to competition, arbitrary, and/or capricious.”
In addition to questioning the accuracy of Farm Share’s application, Feeding South Florida also argues the Department did not properly weigh the responses.
“Petitioner was not awarded the total points it should have been for its Response, including but not limited to a complete failure to award Petitioner points for certain components of its Response based on an allegation or misconception that Petitioner did not provide that information when the information is clearly included within Petitioner’s Response,” the hearing request reads.
Feeding South Florida first filed a separate protest measure with the Agriculture Department, but that was shot down. That’s led the organization to appeal for a hearing before the Division of Administrative Hearings.
Zepeda and Farm Share did not hold back in criticizing Feeding South Florida’s reaction to the Department’s decision.
“We think it’s very sad to see that they are playing this game with the Department of Agriculture, and that they’re basically saying that the Department of Agriculture doesn’t know how to tabulate, or doesn’t know how to be able to administer the TEFAP program, which I think is insulting,” Zepeda said.
But Rich said she recommended to Fried that the Agriculture Department give the applications a second look.
“I would like to see her at least review and take a look at the scoring of the applications to ensure that the entity that can best serve our community is the one that gets the contract,” Rich said. “I think it should be looked at now, personally.”