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FOOD AND AG IN THE CARES ACT

written by Stephanie Armstrong (SFUSA policy Intern), Ed Yowell (SFUSA policy Chair) and the SFUSA Food and Farm Policy Working Group

On March 27, the bipartisan, two trillion-dollar, Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act was signed by the President. This is the third aid package from Congress meant to sustain businesses, individuals, and families during this unprecedented “pause” in normal life.

The act breaks down financially this way:

  • Individuals – $560 billion
  • Big Corporations – $500 billion
  • Small Businesses – $377 billion
  • State and Local Governments – $339.8 billion
  • Public Health – $153.5 billion
  • Education – $43.7 billion
  • Safety Net – $26 billion

Our nation’s small and mid-scale farmers and ranchers, community and tribal-based fishers, farmworkers, and food chain workers are struggling.  Also struggling are millions of families who cannot access the healthy food they need including the countless workers who, because of the pandemic, are facing food insecurity for the first time.

In the run up to this historically large, and some would say inadequate, relief package, Slow Food USA joined many other organizations in advocating for the food chain. Our Executive Director, Anna Mulé, sent these legislative priorities to Senators McConnell and Schumer and Representatives Pelosi and McCarthy.

“We urge Congress to provide for:

  • Dedicated emergency federal financial aid, increased access to credit, and loan extension for small and mid-scale family farmers and ranchers and community-based fishers.
  • Essential Service designation of farmers markets and Essential Person designation of small and mid-scale family farmers and ranchers, community-based fishers, farmworkers, and essential food chain workers.
  • Facilitation by USDA of bulk food purchases of fresh and minimally processed, locally produced food for distribution through USDA Food and Nutrition Service programs.
  • Increased SNAP benefits and cessation of federal efforts to reduce SNAP eligibility.
  • Emergency cessation of federal immigration enforcement directed at undocumented farmworkers and expedited entry of H-2A farmworkers.”

How does the bill stack up on food and agriculture relief? Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), ranking member of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, provided a summary of the act’s provisions affecting farmers, ranchers, rural and Tribal communities, and food insecure households. Here are some highlights, with additional details of the Senator’s assessment following this article.

  • Relief for Farmers and Ranchers – $23.6 billion, including a $9.5 billion dedicated disaster fund to help farmers, including targeted support for fruit and vegetable growers, dairy and livestock farmers, and local food producers, who have been shorted from receiving emergency assistance in the past
  • Assistance for Small Towns and Rural Communities – $101 billion
  • Protections for Consumers and the Food Supply – $135 million
  • Food Access for Families – $25 billion, including $15.8 billion to fund food assistance and $8.8 billion to fund child nutrition improvements made in the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, $450 million to provide food banks with additional resources for food and distribution, and $100 million for food distribution in Tribal communities

In addition to the Senator’s summary, fishers are in line for relief.

  • Fisheries and Aquaculture – $300 million, aimed at supporting independent fishery operators who are not covered otherwise by agricultural disaster assistance programs

The $9.5 billion dedicated disaster fund includes targeted support, the first in agricultural policy history, for fruit and vegetable growers, dairy and livestock farmers, and local food producers selling into local and regional markets. Eric Deeble, Policy Director of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC), stated, “We expect farmers who have lost access to direct markets – like farmers markets, schools, and restaurants – stand to lose more than $1 billion in sales this year. As the impact of the pandemic continues, their losses will mount, and they will have to make hard choices about what to plant and whether they can stay in business at all.  Keeping operations profitable during this crisis is an even greater challenge for farmers with fewer resources to draw on… including beginning farmers, small and mid-sized farmers, and farmers already experiencing systemic inequity, including farmers of color.”

While CARES is vast, it falls short of our priorities in several important respects.

  • Despite $15.5 billion in funds for food assistance, the act fails to increase SNAP benefits across the board, which is an immediate economic infusion.
  • The legislation did not reverse the administration’s new SNAP ABAWD rule, which reduces SNAP eligibility for unemployed able-bodied adults without dependents. However, Agriculture Secretary Perdue has indicated that, during the outbreak, the USDA will not appeal the federal court ruling that blocks implementation of the ABAWD rule.
  • The act does not address the need for adequate hired farmworkers to plant and harvest this year, leaving future national food security at risk. However, administratively, the USDA and the Departments of Homeland Security and State recently agreed to waive certain rules and initiate procedures meant to allow H-2A farmworkers onto our farms and ranches, including visa extensions and expedited entry for returning workers. Moreover, U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has temporarily adjusted its enforcement practices, effective March 18, to focus on public-safety risks and individuals subject to mandatory detention based on criminal grounds, albeit, crossing the border without authorization is considered a crime by this administration. For those individuals who do not fall into these categories, ICE will exercise discretion to delay enforcement actions until after the crisis.

Eric Deebles, of NSAC, further stated, “Farmers are going to need more help… USDA (must) make sure any funding Congress provides reaches the farmers who need it most… Congress must ensure the most impacted farmers get direct payments to make up for lost income, prioritize additional administrative flexibility and direct investments to the field, including emergency food purchases from food hubs and small processors… and ensure that every farmer has access to the credit and resources they need to put a crop in the ground this spring to provide for us all.”

On March 29, Vox reported, “Despite the strong bipartisan showing at the final vote, the days leading up to the bill’s package were marked by turmoil, as Democrats and Republicans sparred over certain provisions, including oversight measures for a $500 billion loan program for large businesses.”

“That may be why Representative Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Speaker of the House, said an additional package was in order… ‘There’s so many things we didn’t get in any of these bills yet in the way that we need to,’ she said. Democrats have pushed for long-term expansions of emergency food assistance, paid leave programs — one such program, passed in mid-March, exists only through the state of emergency — and worker protections.”

Representative Kevin McCarthy (D-CA), House Minority Leader, offered a different approach, stating, “I wouldn’t be so quick to say you have to write something else … Whatever decision we have to make going forward, let’s do it with knowledge, let’s do with experience of what’s on the ground at that moment in time.”  But many of Representative McCarthy’s fellow Republicans disagree. For instance, Senator Roy Blunt (R-MO) said “The minute we’re done with phase three (CARES), we’ll start talking about phase four because all of us know that phase three can’t have included everything that needs to be included.”

With the Senate in recess until April 6 and the House in recess from April 3 to 20, members of both chambers will witness first-hand the immediate impact of COVID-19 on their constituents.  Come April 20, when Congress is back, we will have the opportunity to weigh in on further good, clean, and fair responses to food and farming in crisis.

Senator Stabenow’s CARES summary:

  • Relief for Farmers and Ranchers – $23.6 billion
  • $9.5 billion dedicated disaster fund to help farmers who are experiencing financial losses from the coronavirus crisis, including targeted support for fruit and vegetable growers, dairy and livestock farmers, and local food producers, who have been shorted from receiving emergency assistance in the past.
  • $14 billion to fund the Farm Bill’s farm safety net through the Commodity Credit Corporation.
  • $10 million in small business interruption loan eligibility for farmers and agricultural and rural businesses from eligible lenders, including Farm Credit institutions, through the Small Business Administration. (Repayment forgiveness will be provided for funds used for payroll, rent or mortgage, and utility bills.)
  • $3 million to increase capacity at the USDA Farm Service Agency to meet increased demand from farmers affected by the coronavirus crisis.
  • Assistance for Small Towns and Rural Communities – $101 billion
  • $1 billion available in guaranteed loans to help rural businesses weather the economic downturn.
  • $100 billion to hospitals, health care providers, and facilities, including those in rural areas.
  • $25 million for telemedicine tools to help rural patients access medical care no matter where they live.
  • $100 million for high speed internet expansion in small towns and rural communities.
  • $70 million to help the U.S. Forest Service serve rural communities and reduce the spread of coronavirus through personal protective equipment for first responders and cleaning of facilities.
  • Protections for Consumers and the Food Supply – $135 million
  • $55 million for inspection and quarantine at our borders to protect against invasive pests and animal disease.
  • $33 million for overtime and temporary food safety inspectors to protect America’s food supply at meat processing plants.
  • $45 million to ensure quality produce and meat reaches grocery stores through increased support for the Agricultural Marketing Service.
  • $1.5 million to expedite EPA approvals of disinfectants needed to control the spread of coronavirus.
  • Food Access for Families – $25 billion
  • $15.8 billion to fund food assistance changes made in the Families First Coronavirus Response Act. (Republicans and the Trump Administration blocked additional funding to expand benefits for children, families, and seniors).
  • $8.8 billion to fund child nutrition improvements made in the Families First Coronavirus Response Act.
  • $450 million to provide food banks with additional resources for food and distribution.
  • $100 million for food distribution in Tribal communities to provide facility improvements, equipment upgrades, and food purchases.