Policy Responses to the COVID-19 Crisis: A Faltering Start and an Uncertain Future

An organic farmer harvesting greens (Lisa Helm Hancock, Dayton Urban Grown)

While the highly consolidated global food supply chain has broken under the pressure of the COVID-19 crisis, our diverse and distributed local and regional food system has proven more resilient. Many OEFFA farmers have been able to adapt to the market disruptions that occurred as restaurants and schools closed, by pivoting to other strategies like online pre-ordering and taking advantage of strong customer demand. Farmers’ markets moved quickly to adapt to the new reality of social distancing by implementing drive-thru markets, online ordering systems, and other market modifications.

While these adaptations helped keep local food flowing, they did not come without cost, both financial and human. These changes included things such as recruiting and training more staff and volunteers, reducing the number of vendors at markets, purchasing personal protective equipment, setting up and managing new software for online ordering, and instituting new packaging and labeling requirements.

The local food heroes whose herculean efforts have kept our families fed during this crisis have borne the cost of these adaptations with little to no federal or state support, while the nation’s largest agribusinesses have benefited disproportionately from federal aid packages.

Farmer Assistance to Date

The federal government passed three large aid packages totaling in the trillions aimed at lessening the impact of the pandemic on our society. The third aid bill, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, with a price tag of $2.2 trillion, is the largest economic rescue package in U.S. history and included provisions targeting farmers and food insecurity. Unfortunately, despite a provision creating $9.5 billion in disaster relief targeted to specialty crop, livestock and dairy producers, and farmers growing for direct markets, the U.S. Department of Agriculture chose to ignore Congressional emphasis that the agency support these farmers.

The resulting Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP), with $16 billion in funding, is helpful to farm operations with simple production systems, who can demonstrate a loss in price or sales this year, and who sell into commodity and wholesale markets. As with most federal policy, CFAP fails to help diversified farmers who sell into local and regional markets and value-added producers such as organic farmers, and grass-fed livestock operations. Only 2 percent of the CFAP payments to date have made to U.S. specialty crop farmers.

The Farm Service Agency is accepting applications for CFAP on a first-come, first-served basis. Despite the program’s limitations, we encourage farmers to look at the application to decide if it may be worthwhile and if so, to apply soon. You can find details here. Initial program assessment shows that grain and dairy operators (organic or not) will particularly benefit. The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition’s May 22 blog is a good guide. If you need assistance in applying, contact OEFFA. If you’ve already applied, please let us know about your experience.

A Fourth Round of Aid

The U.S. House of Representatives passed the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) Act which, if signed into law, would be the fourth aid package since the start of the pandemic. The $3 trillion bill would build on the CARES Act and include increased funding for local food, beginning farmers, and specialty crop growers, as well as another $16 billion in direct relief for farmers, this time including organic farmers and others not supported in prior aid packages.

Despite the inclusion of financial assistance targeted—once again—toward small to mid-scale, diversified, and value-added farmers, we need to make sure that the USDA doesn’t—once again—choose to target that aid to larger-scale commodity producers.

The HEROES Act will also increase food assistance and provide $25 million to help states cover the cost of harvesting, processing, packaging, and transporting commodities that would have gone into large-scale commercial food service in order to shift these products into emergency feeding programs. However, that provision is lacking in several critical elements including language to target or prioritize resources to small farmers and those selling into local food systems. Additionally, funds cannot be used directly for purchasing farm products.

Senate Action

While Senate leaders initially put the brakes on additional stimulus, and the President threatened a veto, there are signs a fourth aid package will move forward.

In the interim period, many members of Congress have stepped in with legislation that would fill some of the gaps resulting from the limited focus of the prior omnibus bills. Numerous bills are being introduced to “set the mark” for inclusion in the HEROES Act, including:

  • Farmers Feeding Families Coronavirus Response Act: Introduced by Representative Kim Schrier (D-WA) (HR 6725) and Senator Bob Casey (D-PA) (SB 3655), this bill would target federal funding for purchases from producers who rely on local agricultural markets (such as farmers’ markets, farm-to-table restaurants, and farm-to-school programs), provide funding for state agencies and food banks to directly and immediately replenish their food stocks to meet increased demand, and allow states to support farmers that may not normally participate in the USDA’s national purchase programs by purchasing surplus perishable foods at risk of going to waste.
  • Relief for America’s Small Farmers Act: Introduced by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) (SB 3602) and Representative Patrick Maloney (D-NY) (HR 6683), this bill would alleviate debt, keep farms open, and fortify the nation’s food supply, providing direct relief to the nation’s most vulnerable farmers by providing a one-time debt forgiveness of up to $250,000, across three types of USDA Farm Service Agency loans. All small farms with an average adjusted gross income of up to $300,000 for the previous five years will be eligible, and, importantly, farmers who receive debt forgiveness or write-downs maintain their eligibility for future loans. Loan forgiveness would NOT be taxable.
  • Food Supply Protection Act: Introduced by Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) this bill would strengthen food partnerships to prevent waste and feed families, retool small and medium-sized food processors, and support food banks and non-profits to help increase their capacity to address growing food demand. The bill is co-sponsored by Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH).
  • SNAP Online Expansion and Delivery Act: Introduced by Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) this bill would help Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) work better by allowing benefits to be used online across the country, while also providing information technology investments and technical assistance resources to ensure all authorized retailers, including direct market farmers, have the infrastructure necessary for online transactions.

Next Steps and Opportunity for Action

Over the coming days and weeks the Senate will come to some resolution about what they want to see in a fourth coronavirus aid package. If we don’t put serious pressure on our elected officials to provide more oversight and accountability on the use of these funds, we will continue to see the playing field be tilted toward the largest and wealthiest farms.

Do you think it’s time for federal policy to support those who need it most? Contact Amalie Lipstreu at (614) 947-1607 or and share your thoughts.