Congress Reacts to Coronavirus, Focus on Foods

As the U.S. contended with the economic ramifications of stay-at-home orders designed to battle the coronavirus pandemic, Congress passed legislation to help businesses and American employees weather the storm.

As of April 7, the country reported 368,533 infections, representing about 27% of global reported infections, according to a tracker developed by Johns Hopkins University. Hot spots like New York City were preparing for a spike in infections the week of April 5, while other municipalities braced for rising infection rates.

To date, Congress passed three laws to contend with the coronavirus pandemic, including the Coronavirus Preparedness and Response Supplemental Appropriations Act, enacted March 6; the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), enacted March 18; and the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES Act), enacted March 27.

The Coronavirus Preparedness and Response Supplemental Appropriations Act, the first bill to be passed, provided $8.3 billion in emergency funding for federal agencies to respond to the coronavirus outbreak and appeared to have a marginal effect on the food industry. The act focused mostly on funding medical initiatives, health agencies and organizations, small businesses, preparedness activities, and humanitarian missions.

However, the FFCRA did specifically focus on food functions in the U.S. FFCRA provided appropriations for USDA to use under the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children program and the Emergency Food Assistance Program.

Additionally, it authorized the agency to provide emergency SNAP benefits to households with children who were otherwise receiving free or reduced-price meals in the case their schools were closed. It also allowed for states to use the Electronic Benefits Transfer system to disperse funding. Work requirements under SNAP were also suspended.

Also included in FFCRA were provisions to give businesses with fewer than 500 employees funds to provide employees with paid leave, either for the employee’s own health needs or to care for family members. The legislation will ensure that workers are not forced to choose between their paychecks and the public health measures needed to combat the virus while at the same time reimbursing businesses, according to the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division.

The CARES Act was designed to help consumers mitigate the effects, both economic and medical, of the virus. The act would provide tax rebates, with individuals able to receive $1,200; couples $2,400; and $500 payments for qualifying children. It delayed due dates for certain tax payments for businesses, temporarily suspended payments for federal student loans, and allowed the Department of Treasury to temporarily guarantee money-market funds.

Beyond consumer protections, the $2 trillion CARES Act provided food- and agriculture-related businesses with some funding, according to the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF). AFBF noted USDA received $9.5 billion to use in support of farmers and ranchers impacted by the virus, with a focus on specialty crops, local food systems, restaurants, schools, livestock producers, and dairy farmers.

In addition, USDA’s Commodity Credit Corp. received $14 billion to ensure funding was available for agricultural programs including the Price Loss Coverage and Dairy Margin Coverage programs. The funding was for fiscal year 2020, so it was additional to the second and third tranches of Market Facilitation Program payments stemming from the trade war with China.

AFBF analysis found the CARES Act provided a total of about $24.6 billion for domestic food programs, “representing 50% of the total agricultural program funding in the bill. The act allocates $15.8 billion, or 32%, to improve access to supplemental nutrition programs in the event costs or participation exceed budget estimates.”

Although, some said the programs were not enough to help small restaurants. The Independent Restaurant Coalition (ICR) called upon Congress to rectify the CARES Act, to ensure the survival of independent restaurants across the nation, which were closing in order to protect the population from the spreading disease, reported Eater (April 6).

ICR wrote a letter to Congressional leaders laying out four proposed policy changes to the act to protect the independent restaurant industry. It pointed out 12 million U.S. citizens worked in the industry, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics, although industry claimed the number could be even higher.

“Although the CARES Act attempted to provide a temporary lifeline, it unfortunately does not provide adequate resources or the right tools to ensure the survival of the independently owned restaurants nationwide that contribute nearly $1 trillion to the economy annually,” the letter stated.

Meanwhile, Congressional leaders were at odds on what next steps are needed to contend with the coronavirus pandemic. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi advocated for a quick second bill, providing more assistance for farmers, extending unemployment benefits, and directing additional stimulus payments. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said another law would be needed but urged it should be crafted to meet the shortcomings of the CARES Act, reported NPR (April 6).

Speaker Pelosi argued a “Phase 4” effort to spur the economy would be needed before an infrastructure bill was passed, which had been proposed by the President and other Congress members. The Senate is currently scheduled to reconvene April 20.

The United Fresh Produce Association echoed Speaker Pelosi’s call to provide more aid to the nation’s fresh produce growers. United Fresh partnered with some industry partners to present USDA with its comprehensive Produce Market Stabilization Program.

The program was designed to immediately support critical financial needs in the produce supply chain. A coalition of 108 Congress members sent a letter to Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue urging USDA to support this immediate relief.

“Since the beginning of this crisis, our association has worked to help our industry keep produce moving to consumers,” said Michael Muzyk, president, Baldor Specialty Foods, and chairman of United Fresh. “And, we’ve worked to help our members actually survive following the devastating financial impact of this crisis. Today is an important day on a path toward some stability for our industry to be able to serve consumers when we’re finally past this terrible time,” he concluded.