Along with $16 billion in direct payments to farmers, the USDA also wants to buy their excess produce, dairy, and meat.

By Mike Pomranz
April 20, 2020
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Keeping tabs on the federal government’s response to the COVID-19 outbreak has become trickier than knowing whether or not you’re supposed to wear a facemask. The $2 trillion CARES Act promised stimulus checks that many Americans have yet to receive, Paycheck Protection Program funds that were apparently scooped up by large players leaving small businesses high and dry, and an estimated $49 billion to support the food and agriculture industry—which, yes, has its own issues. Not surprisingly, on Friday, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue cited worries about how long that money might take to reach farmers as a reason his department has announced an additional Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP).

Using a mix of USDA funds, CFAP is primarily an opportunity to get $16 billion in direct support to farmers and ranchers more quickly—by May—than through the methods laid out in the CARES Act, which wouldn’t materialize until July. “I’m not sure if people can hang on long enough until July to wait for that money,” Perdue said in a press conference, specifically referring to the $14 billion the CARES Act allocated to the Commodity Credit Corporation and earmarked for farmers.

Farmer checking soybean crop
Credit: Ryan/Beyer/Getty Images

But CFAP’s remaining $3 billion has the opportunity to benefit a lot more people than just farmers: This money will be used to help reroute excess food supply to those in need. “USDA will partner with regional and local distributors, whose workforce has been significantly impacted by the closure of many restaurants, hotels, and other food service entities, to purchase $3 billion in fresh produce, dairy, and meat,” the department explains. “We will begin with the procurement of an estimated $100 million per month in fresh fruits and vegetables, $100 million per month in a variety of dairy products, and $100 million per month in meat products. The distributors and wholesalers will then provide a pre-approved box of fresh produce, dairy, and meat products to food banks, community and faith based organizations, and other non-profits serving Americans in need.”

The USDA also reminded the public that this $3 billion in rerouted food is on top of “up to an additional $873.3 million available in Section 32 funding to purchase a variety of agricultural products for distribution to food banks” and the “at least $850 million for food bank administrative costs and USDA food purchases” authorized by the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) and CARES Act.

As to how this food will be rerouted, well, that’s the tricky part. Perdue himself reportedly called it “a logistical Rubik’s cube.” But apparently the plan will include partnering with a mix of public and private organizations. Modern Farmer even mentioned the food giant Sysco as one of the businesses that will help package and distribute these boxes of fresh produce, dairy, and meat products.

“During this time of national crisis, President Trump and USDA are standing with our farmers, ranchers, and all citizens to make sure they are taken care of,” Perdue said in the final USDA press release on CFAP. “The American food supply chain had to adapt, and it remains safe, secure, and strong, and we all know that starts with America’s farmers and ranchers. This program will not only provide immediate relief for our farmers and ranchers, but it will also allow for the purchase and distribution of our agricultural abundance to help our fellow Americans in need.”

Hopefully, this “smaller” $19 billion relief program will be more nimble on its feet than the problematically large CARES Act. But at the same time, Perdue also warned that there would still be applications for farmers to fill out. His explanation: “I don’t want to be facetious, but does anything happen in the federal government without paperwork?”