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Federal Food Purchases: Buying from Small Businesses and Local Sources

GAO-24-106602 Published: Mar 20, 2024. Publicly Released: Apr 18, 2024.
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Fast Facts

This Q&A report discusses federal food purchases for places like schools and military bases. The Agricultural Marketing Service and Defense Logistics Agency are the two largest federal purchasers, awarding billions of dollars in contracts annually to procure food. The agencies are generally required to buy domestic food—but they aren't required to buy locally grown food.

Agency documentation suggests that they both attempt to source, or support the purchase of, locally grown food when possible. But neither agency collects complete data on such purchases.

Fresh fruits and vegetables

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What GAO Found

From fiscal years 2018 through 2022 the federal government obligated more than $33 billion for the purchase of food sourced from within the United States from domestic vendors. During this time, the United States Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Agricultural Marketing Service and the Department of Defense's (DOD) Defense Logistics Agency accounted for more than 90 percent of all federal purchases of domestic food. These foods are purchased for Agricultural Marketing Service and Defense Logistics Agency clients, including schools, food banks, and military installations, and are a vital component of our nation's food safety net. Both the Agricultural Marketing Service and Defense Logistics Agency purchase food in response to requests from their clients. These requests reflect dietary guidelines tailored to specific needs.

The Agricultural Marketing Service and Defense Logistics Agency obligated nearly $30 billion for food purchases in fiscal years 2018 through 2022. Of that amount, the agencies obligated $13.6 billion (over 45 percent) on contracts with small businesses, according to GAO's analysis of federal procurement data.

Both agencies are generally required by law to purchase domestic food, but there are no requirements that this food be locally grown, and neither the Agricultural Marketing Service nor Defense Logistics Agency collects comprehensive data on such purchases. However, both agencies encourage vendors to source locally grown food where available. In addition, since fiscal year 2021, the Agricultural Marketing Service has provided more than $600 million in financial assistance to states, territories, and tribal governments to purchase foods produced within the state, or within 400 miles of the delivery destination, to help support local, regional, and underserved producers.

Through the USDA DOD Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program—which provides fresh fruits and vegetables to schools, Tribes, and tribal organizations in partnership with the USDA—the Defense Logistics Agency purchased more than $287 million of locally grown food products from fiscal years 2018 through 2022.

Why GAO Did This Study

The Agricultural Marketing Service is the primary purchasing agency for USDA and uses contracts to purchase a variety of domestic food products from vendors for use by the agency's clients, such as schools and food banks. The Defense Logistics Agency procures and distributes food through the DOD supply chain, including to military installations. Federal regulations require agencies to contract with small businesses, including for the purchase of food, to the extent practicable. The Agricultural Marketing Service and Defense Logistics Agency are required to purchase domestic food products. However, they are not required to purchase food that is locally grown.

GAO was asked to examine issues related to federal purchases of food, including the extent of small business participation and purchases of locally grown food. This report provides information about how the Agricultural Marketing Service and Defense Logistics Agency make decisions about the types of food to purchase, the amount they purchased from small businesses, and their purchases of locally grown food in fiscal years 2018 through 2022, the most recent data available at the time of GAO's review. GAO reviewed relevant laws and agency documentation, analyzed obligations data, and interviewed agency officials as well as selected Agricultural Marketing Service and Defense Logistics Agency clients.

For more information, contact Steve Morris at (202) 512-3841 or

Full Report

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Agricultural marketingCommoditiesFoodFood assistance programsFood productsFood standardsSmall businessDefense logisticsSchoolsBanking