Island farmers sustain multi-million-dollar blow with cancellation of Education Dept. purchases
By The Star Staff
The Education Department dealt a “serious blow” to Puerto Rico’s farmers when it cancelled a contract with the Agricultural Business Development Administration (ADEA) that supplied school lunchrooms with farming products grown locally, the president of the Puerto Rico Farmers Bureau, Héctor Cordero Toledo, charged Wednesday.
The market for local schools has a $15 million annual price tag and is made up of meats, fruits and vegetables supplied by local farmers.
“As if the blow caused by the slow recovery from the 2017 hurricanes, the January tremors and the closures to family markets caused by the COVID pandemic are not enough, without further explanation on Friday, September 25 of this year, the Administrative Secretary of the School Food Authority sent an email recommending the cancellation of the purchase of ADEA products,” Cordero said.
Despite their many efforts, island farmers are still waiting for a response from both the Education and Agriculture departments, “from those who, beyond idle gestures, have not been seen exerting any kind of pressure to address the matter,” Cordero said.
“There is something fishy going on between the Department of Agriculture and its ADEA division and they should clarify why after more than 18 years of negotiation between the two government departments, there is an impasse where local farmers are adversely affected,” the head of the Farmers Bureau said.
Productores de Cítricos de la Montaña General Manager Jorge Méndez Roig said the cancellation of the contract puts the growth of the island citrus industry at risk since the main shareholder and market is the Agriculture Department.
“It is unusual that the secretary of Agriculture has abandoned such an important program with school lunchrooms that has benefited many farming industries and hundreds of farmers for many years. This program is one of the few initiatives that has managed to organize the sectors to guarantee a safe market and stable prices for our farmers’ crops, and the secretary, Carlos Flores, is throwing away many years of sacrifices affecting hundreds of farmers and thousands of employees in [Puerto Rico’s] mountainous area, thus harming the diminished economy of our region that has been abandoned in this four-year period,” Méndez Roig said.
“It is shameful for others to think that they are considering having him continue in the position despite being the secretary who has generated the greatest discord of all the secretaries with the different agricultural sectors, which has been publicly denounced in recent years in different forums.”
Amanda Ramírez, the executive director of the Pork Promotion Fund, said meanwhile that the organization participated in the auction held by ADEA in August, but that at the end of October the Education Department held a bid for the same product in the ADEA bid.
“We participated in the pre-auction meeting in Education and they informed us that they have no information regarding why the bids carried out in ADEA were no longer awarded,” she said.
The farming business owner expressed concern because at the meeting she was informed “that there can be no priority to local products due to the Buy American Act.”
The Pork Promotion Fund has been participating in the School Lunchroom Program since 2007 and is in charge of assigning the distribution of pigs to processing plants.
Other farmers have contacted the Farmers Association to express concern about the economic and social impact of the decision amid the pandemic.