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The COVID-19 stimulus package signed into law on March 27 included US$23 billion for agriculture. This relief is warranted: access to safe and healthy food is paramount right now, and agriculture is a crucial pillar of our economy.
While the package provides financial assistance to school nutrition programs, farmers, and food banks, it didn’t go far enough to protect family-scale farmers, food workers, and local food businesses that have been hit hard by this crisis. It also failed to expand benefits for families already struggling with hunger and farmworkers who are the backbone of our food system but are among the least protected in our society. To ensure that the next COVID-19 stimulus is not a giveaway to corporate agribusiness, we need to understand where the latest aid package fell short.
The biggest chunk of change for agriculture is US$14 billion channeled through the Commodity Credit Corporation, a financing arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) that was responsible for distributing aid to farmers harmed by President Trump’s disastrous trade war with China.
But the stimulus bill largely leaves the distribution of funds for agriculture in the hands of Trump’s Secretary of Agriculture, Sonny Perdue. If history is any indication, this will likely amount to a massive giveaway for industrial farm operations producing corn and soy for fuel, animal feed, processed foods, and exports, rather than family-scale farmers and ranchers that feed regional communities.
The stimulus package includes no caps on payments, no requirements to demonstrate that market losses are tied to coronavirus, and no guardrails to ensure money does not further enrich the top one percent of farmers like the China trade bailout did. An analysis from Environmental Working Group found that the top one percent of trade aid recipients received US$183,331 on average, with one farm receiving $2.8 million, while the bottom 80 percent received less than US$5,000 on average.
Rather than concentrating aid to corporate agribusiness, Congress should ensure that the majority of aid be directed toward small and mid-scale farmers and ranchers and local and regional food businesses that enable healthy food to get to people who need it most. The stimulus package includes US$9.5 billion that could help these farmers through a provision that specifically names specialty crop producers and farmers and ranchers who supply local markets among the beneficiaries. Unfortunately, this money is also entirely at U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Perdue’s discretion.
From farmers’ markets to cooperatives to processors and distributors that bridge the gap between farmers and local families, providing support for a robust regional food system is especially vital for ensuring resiliency, food security, and strong local economies in times of crisis. With the right focus, US$45 million included in the stimulus package for agricultural marketing could have helped. But since none of these millions were earmarked for the Local Agricultural Marketing Program (LAMP), a key program that supports local farms and regional food system infrastructure, it may turn into yet another Big Ag giveaway.
At a time when the healthcare system is in crisis, it’s especially important to increase access to healthy, immune-boosting food by aligning public stimulus funding with the USDA’s own Dietary Guidelines for Americans. These guidelines call for increased consumption of fruits, nuts, vegetables and legumes and less meat and processed foods. Now more than ever, USDA must prioritize support for fruit and vegetable growers and ensure that the hundreds of millions it will spend on procuring food for schools, food banks, and other emergency feeding operations is aligned with dietary recommendations. Greater public investment in these healthy foods will help to reduce our nation’s growing rates of chronic, costly, diet-related illnesses, such as diabetes and heart disease.
Access to safe and healthy food is an urgent need as millions have lost their jobs and are struggling to put food on the table. Before this pandemic, 37 million people in the U.S. were food insecure, and now millions more will need food assistance. While Congress managed to find hundreds of billions of dollars for a corporate slush fund in the stimulus package, legislators failed to expand the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Congress ignored hunger advocates’ demands for increased benefits and a guarantee that Trump’s cruel regulatory attempt to restrict eligibility for the program would be stopped. Congress also missed an opportunity to increase funding for programs like GusNIP or the Fair Food Network’s Double Up Food Bucks, which incentivizes purchases of fresh produce by SNAP recipients and encourages shopping at farmers’ markets.
The stimulus package also failed to sufficiently address the needs of the nearly 22 million food workers and farmworkers who continue to work without adequate protection or compensation, at risk to their own health. Congress must designate these workers as first responders and make them eligible for critical benefits such as hazard pay, childcare, and overtime. Food chain workers also need paid sick leave, basic safety equipment, and access to health care services. It is clear that these frontline workers need fair compensation and protections for the risks they take to put food on our table. A comprehensive set of demands for food chain workers can be found on HEAL Food Alliance’s website here.
Even before this crisis, small and mid-scale farmers have been struggling to stay afloat in an increasingly consolidated agricultural economy. Four million farms disappeared between 1948 and 2015, even as farm output more than doubled. During the height of Trump’s devastating trade war, between 2017 and 2018, another 12,000 farms were lost. Farm bankruptcies were up 12 percent last year, and farm debt is at an all-time high. To prevent these trends from worsening, Congress must expand USDA’s loan programs, place a moratorium on farm foreclosures and ensure that aid goes to those who are most affected economically by the COVID-19 pandemic, especially farmers and ranchers of color and those who have lost local and regional markets. If stimulus money does not get to the farmers who most need it, small and mid-scale farms could be wiped out.
Black farmers and other farmers of color are particularly vulnerable. Because they have historically been robbed of their land and excluded from farm lending, direct payments, and other USDA services, they have largely been blocked from accessing large-scale markets. Black farmers now constitute only 1.4 percent of total farmers and 0.4 percent of US agricultural sales; fifty-seven percent of Black-operated farms had annual sales of less than US$5,000. These farmers have been deeply injured by discriminatory agricultural policies for more than a century in this country and deserve their fair share of COVID-19 aid.
Our response to coronavirus will shape our food system for years to come, for better or worse. Without judicious spending by USDA and more oversight from Congress, this stimulus package and others to come will fail to promote the healthy and just food system we so desperately need during this crisis, and for the future.