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Technology & Entrepreneurship

Questions And Cancellation Create Doubts For San Antonio-Based Event Planner's USDA Contract

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Dominic Walsh

Updated 5/29 to reflect CRE8AD8's first shiptment to the San Antonio Food Bank.

San Antonio congressmen Joaquin Castro and Lloyd Doggett are asking the U.S. Department of Agriculture to stop working with an area business. 

A San Antonio-based wedding planner CRE8AD8 (Pronounced Create-a-date) was one of several companies awarded tens of millions of dollars by the USDA to help feed families in need. 

The company is one of several criticized for being contracted despite having no experience in food distribution, and — according to people who have interacted with them — little understanding of food safety.

The “Farmers to Families Food Box” program was created by the USDA at lightning speed. It used a streamlined procurement process and was intended to expand the USDA’s vendor rolls. Several USDA leaders said in webinars it put the federal agency outside its comfort zone but, as USDA Associate Deputy Administrator Christopher Purdy described, the situation was desperate.

“Most of you are living and breathing the tough situation right now. Farmers dumping fresh produce and milk, euthanizing animals in some cases,” said Purdy in an April 29 Zoom call with interested providers.

At the same time, food banks across the country have been feeding unprecedented numbers of people. USDA officials said some were experiencing between 50% and 70% increases, while volunteers and contributions shrunk. So, the USDA — with a couple hundred contracts — tried to rewire the food distribution system to get them more food quickly. 

Food Bank CEO Eric Cooper said he's rooting for CRE8AD8 but that the odds are against the company, and questions persist about how it got the contract.
Credit Paul Flahive | Texas Public Radio

Two weeks into Farmers and Families, food banks across the southwest United States are only seeing a fraction of the promised food.

“We just haven't seen the volume that we were anticipating,” said Eric Cooper, CEO of the San Antonio Food Bank. “Part of that is the largest contract in kind of the southwest region, went to a company called createdate. They weren't on our radar.”  

That’s because San Antonio-based CRE8AD 8 — which at nearly $40 million received the seventh largest contract in the country — is a little known wedding and event planning company. 

When the contract was awarded it had no warehouse, no trucks, no license to move produce, no experience — and its address is a mailbox at a UPS store. 

Yet it somehow convinced the USDA it could deliver 750,000 food boxes across the southwest in six weeks.

  • As seen above, CRE8AD8 did obtain a Perishable Agricultural Commodities Act license. The license is required to move produce in the U.S. They obtained it six days after they were to have begun delivering food.
     

Reporting by the San Antonio Express-News — confirmed by Texas Public Radio — has shown CRE8AD8 embellished its record, saying it had worked with companies it hadn’t and claimed unearned successes. 

“I worry that USDA might have been catfished,” said Cooper. “People are reaching out to me going, ‘Hey are you spending time energy and effort pursuing something that isn't real? And is it ever going to amount to food?’”

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Credit Paul Flahive | Texas Public Radio
CRE8AD8's address is Box 278 at this UPS Store on Loop 1604. When the contract was awarded it had no warehouse, no trucks, and no experience in food logistics.

CRE8AD8 declined to speak to TPR for this story, and USDA declined to address questions about the company's contract.

The Farmers to Families program has already voided one contract with an inexperienced California vendor and there are concerns about several others.

“I guess I would say it doesn’t surprise me too much,” said Jennifer Ahearn, policy director at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. She said in its haste, USDA may have prioritized the wrong things, weighing the company’s narrative over its history and its financial ability to deliver. 

“It seems like if you are prioritizing those other things over somebody's ability to deliver, that's exactly the kind of circumstance it's going to lead to a situation where you may have some folks who receive contracts who aren't able to deliver on them,” she said.

The contract is only reimbursement-based. That means CRE8AD8 has to pay for all the food upfront, deliver it and document everything before they see any federal dollars.

Nando Gonzalez walks down a narrow row of crowded produce at River City Produce. He dodged pallet jacks and forklifts as he walked through the segmented and cooled San Antonio warehouse. 

“You walk through these aisles and you see the world,” he said “You know here you have jalapenos, you have Texas green beans right here. You have limes that came from Mexico, Serranos that came from Mexico... apples from Washington” said Gonzalez.

Each section is a little colder or warmer than the area before, all to accommodate food safety.

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Credit Paul Flahive | Texas Public Radio
River City Produce

He bid the Farmers to Families RFP for a fraction of the $39.1 million given to CRE8AD8. For companies like his, it was a lifeline and he didn’t want to overpromise. 

When he didn’t get it, he said he was fine with that. It would have helped but he was able to keep his staff on. Then he saw that an enormous contract went to a single company no one had ever heard of. 

“Disbelief. Shock. Saying, ‘Surely this is a mistake.’ When it's an entity that isn't even in the industry, the flags start going up. Because these things that you're looking at, took years and years and years of infrastructure to build,” he said.

River City has around 50 trucks. It has 75,000 thousand square feet of space between its two warehouses. 

When asked how long it would take for a company to purchase $39.1 million in food, he laughed so hard he apologized, and said quietly:

“It takes a while.”

It would take longer than four weeks; that’s all the time CRE8AD8 has left. 

The San Antonio Food Bank has received its first truck of food from CE8AD8. The company delivered about 250 boxes Thursday, and 450 on Friday. It has four more weeks to deliver the remaining 740,000.

All of the nearly 40 food banks across the southwest need the company to be successful. They need the food. Eric Cooper said he was rooting for them, but no one knows what to expect.

Paul Flahive can be reached at Paul@tpr.org or on Twitter @paulflahive.

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