Keeping Food on the Table in a Pandemic

Migrant workers separating the greens from sweet potatoes in Mechanicsville, Virginia

Lance Cheung/USDA

As the COVID19 crisis reverberates through our society, our food system is stressed. Grocery store clerks, food delivery workers, small and mid-sized farmers, people experiencing food insecurity, and farmworkers living and working in crowded conditions are experiencing and witnessing some of the harshest economic and societal effects of this pandemic. The food system, from farm to fridge, is in the crosshairs of the COVID crisis. Now, more than ever, we need to ensure that it is as strong and well-functioning as possible, and that the most vulnerable in our food chain are adequately supported.

The massive stimulus bill passed by Congress on March 27th, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act (S.3548), allocates $2 trillion to pandemic and economic relief. This bill, and previous stimulus legislation, make significant strides in bolstering the economy, key industries, workers and families in these uncertain and precarious times. They take important steps toward alleviating the economic burden of the pandemic on some of the most impacted people in our society. Particularly important provisions include expanding unemployment benefits and direct aid to states and households.

As Congress contemplates a next relief package, however, it must fill gaps left by previous packages. Furthermore, federal agencies must implement relief packages already passed to further strengthen the food system. These actions should ensure that (1) All people and families have food on their tables throughout the pandemic and economic crisis; and (2) The food system, from farm to fridge, remains strong and able to supply the food the nation needs.

Ensure everyone has access to food 

As families struggle with lost income and empty supermarket shelves, good nutrition is also critical to keeping people healthy and strengthening immune systems. The first stimulus bill made a strong start—it included increased funding for programs providing emergency food and child nutrition, gave needed flexibility to states in implementing the SNAP (Food Stamp) program and provided for emergency SNAP allotments related to the crisis. Yet while the CARES Act included some additional—and much needed—funding and flexibility in food programs, Congress missed a critical opportunity to help the most vulnerable families and lift the economy: increasing SNAP benefits. The next relief bill must raise the maximum SNAP allotment by 15% and the minimum benefit from $16 to $30. These additional measures will help ensure Americans who most need it have food on the table

The SNAP program is one of the nation’s most effective anti-poverty programs. It reaches more than 40 million low-income families a month, and more families will turn to SNAP as a result of job and income loss due to COVID-19. Furthermore, SNAP is a proven and powerful economic stimulus. The low-income families that receive SNAP benefits quickly spend them, and that spending multiplies as it moves through the economy. Additional stimulus should include a 15% percent increase in the maximum SNAP allotment, and raise the minimum SNAP benefit to $30. These changes would go a long way to ensuring that all families have access to food, and would provide valuable stimulus to local, regional and the national economies.

Protect food-system workers

The people laboring to get food from farm to fridge deserve basic workplace protections and equitable access to healthcare in the event that they get sick. The CARES Act lays some important foundations on which agencies and Congress can build to ensure that happens, but there is more work left to ensure worker safety and prevent major disruptions in our food system. Congress must use the next relief act to enact measure that protect the health of workers who are essential to our supply chain.

All people deserve to be safe from infectious disease at work. The CARES Act authorizes the Secretary of Labor to increase staffing levels at OSHA and enforce existing occupational standards. That’s a good step, but there is more work to be done. OSHA already has the authority to issue an “emergency temporary standard” to protect workers for 6 months from hazards, including infectious diseases. In fact, OSHA started to work on some of these standards but the Trump Administration put the kibosh on these efforts early on in the term. In the next relief bill, Congress should direct OSHA to pick up that work and ensure that all workers will be protected in their workplaces, including from COVID-19.

The CARES Act provided more than $180 million for rural health. This is an important step to fill the gap left by the extreme decline in rural hospital access in recent years. But for the people working in fields and on slaughterhouse lines in crowded and often dangerous conditions, this does not ensure access to care in the event the virus continues to spread through those workplaces and communities. The next relief bill passed by Congress should establish field medical care has the potential to save many lives, reduce the pressure on healthcare systems in agricultural areas, and prevent a major disruption to the nation’s food supply.

Keep more U.S. farmers growing food to supply their nearby communities 

With restaurants, large institutions, farmers markets, and schools closed all over the country, farmers who make their living by selling primarily to those markets are scrambling to adjust their sales and distribution models. The CARES Act provides $9.5 billion to agricultural providers impacted by the coronavirus, and it can’t come too soon for the nation’s small and mid-sized farmers who rely on those lost markets

Large amounts of this funding will be allocated at the discretion of United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). USDA must make certain that the funding allocated to farmers by the CARES Act goes to those who need it most, prioritizing those who do not traditionally benefit from Farm Bill commodity and crop insurance programs, according to ongoing NRDC research. We urge USDA to create a streamlined, burden-free application process and advertise program funding broadly, beyond traditional networks. USDA should prioritize farmers of color/socially disadvantaged farmers, small to mid-sized farms, and beginning farmers for funding. Finally, Small Business Administration funds authorized by the CARES act should also be made available to farmers, to provide additional sources of relief to farmers who may have difficulty accessing USDA funding (for example, farmers in the District of Columbia who do not have a USDA office to apply to.)

To invest in healthier, more resilient communities with shorter food supply chains, we are calling for $1.5B in additional stimulus funding to be housed within one of the many existing loan programs under the USDA’s Farm Service Agency and Farm Credit System, such as the FSA’s microloan program. This new funding would offer grants, specifically targeting small and mid-sized producers, to supply the local food systems in our communities, including farmers markets, restaurants, and schools.

This blog provides general information, not legal advice. If you need legal help, please consult a lawyer in your state.

About the Authors

Valerie Baron

Senior Attorney and Director, Animal Agriculture, Health and Food Division, Healthy People & Thriving Communities Program

Lena Brook

Director, Food Campaigns, Healthy People & Thriving Communities Program

Amy Brown

Director, Food & Agriculture Program

Lara Bryant

Deputy Director, Water & Agriculture; Nature Program
Blog Post

People laboring to get food from farm to fridge deserve basic workplace protections and equitable access to healthcare.

Blog Post

Congress missed a huge opportunity to help the most vulnerable families and lift the economy at the same time: increasing SNAP benefits so more families can buy groceries.

Blog Post

Congress and the Trump Administration need to take immediate action to ensure our small- and mid-sized farms survive.

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