Policy Connection

Why Policy Matters

Analysis by Traci Bruckner, SAFSF Policy Program Director

The USDA’s Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP) contains two provisions: 1) direct payments to agriculture producers; and 2) the Farmers to Families Food Box Program. We could see clear structural problems with the direct farmer payments from the moment the program was announced, and now we’ve seen that the food box program is also problematic, both in its implementation and in the root philosophy behind it.

Direct Payments Program Misses the Mark
Congress provided roughly $9.5 billion through the CARES Act, for direct assistance to agriculture producers, and this specifically included “producers that supply local food systems, including farmers markets, restaurants and schools.” While the language was not as strong as many had worked toward and hoped would be included in the final bill, there was at least an explicit directive to ensure all producers who had suffered a loss were included. What has rolled out from USDA, however, completely misses the mark.

USDA has added additional funds from the Commodity Credit Corporation (CCC) to the $9.5 billion to create a $16 billion direct farmer assistance program. This is the largest one-time pot of money in the history of farm support, and this follows the $14.5 billion USDA delivered last year through Market Facilitation Program (MFP) or “trade aid” payments.

Rather than building a program with a payment structure that compensates producers for their actual losses, this program simply focuses on commodity price decline regardless of actual revenue loss. They also doubled the payment limitations from $125,000 to $250,000 per person but with the weak definitions that determine payment eligibility, these limitations do not really apply. Therefore, we will see multi-million dollar payments to individual farming operations. See this video to learn more how large farms benefit from payment limit loopholes. 

In addition, as NSAC indicates, they have set up the program on a first come, first served basis which means the largest and least complex systems, i.e., monoculture crops/commodity pricing, will be the greatest beneficiaries because the paperwork is simple for that system versus a system with many different crops and value-added pricing. Therefore, the highly diversified, complex operations growing many different crops for value added markets at a higher price index than USDA accounts for are fundamentally excluded by the very structure of the program.

So USDA is going to spend $16 billion – that’s right, $16 billion! – in just one year to assist farmers affected by the pandemic, and the small and diversified farms who watched their restaurant and school markets evaporate overnight, are effectively being left behind. USDA is even lagging in simply delivering grant funding to specialty crop producers (click hereto see a summary from USDA on where the payments have gone, and go here to see Farm Bureau’s article/maps).

The Administration has developed a program that very closely replicates the “trade aid” payments, and we saw how those payments flowed to the largest, wealthiest and primarily white farmers. CFAP is repeating that familiar pattern.

Last week, Representatives Chellie Pingree (D-ME 1st) and Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE 1st) sent a letter to Secretary Perdue on how to improve the reach of the program. See the letter here.

Farmers to Families Food Box Program – A SNAP Trojan Horse
USDA set aside $3 billion for direct purchases of meat, dairy and specialty crops for the Farmers to Families Food Box Program. On the surface, it sounds like a great idea, especially when stories of farmers plowing under crops at the same time food banks were overwhelmed and unable to serve the ever-rising spikes in demand were making national headlines. In addition, there was hope and potential that local and regional market farmers, who had lost their direct marketing channels, would benefit from this program.

It was great to see groups like Common Market and some food hubs receive contracts in the first round, no doubt those will serve both farmers and families well. But there were very large contracts awarded to organizations/companies that have no experience in food distribution, and less than 10 percent of the contracts awarded have benefited local and regional market farmers.

However, the real concern with this program is the underlying philosophy of those who would like to see such initiatives replace federal nutrition programs, or at the very least scale them back significantly. This administration has previously promoted similar proposals and in fact included this in their 2019 budget. (See page 24 for the narrative and page 137 for the numbers.) Moreover, Secretary Perdue was pressing forward with a new SNAP rule that would have kicked 700,000 people out of the program had it gone into effect.

The evidence is clear that the best way to fight hunger is through ensuring sufficient support for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). And from a systemic viewpoint, making it easier for people to get SNAP during emergencies, whether natural or economic, and making it easy to use SNAP in any food-buying environment, including direct from farmers in local/regional contexts, seems a much smarter and more efficient way to avoid food system disruptions, which will benefit farmers as well. Creating a food box program with so many moving parts is moving money around inefficiently and obscuring the true nature of food insecurity in normal times as well as in emergencies. It also takes agency away from low-income families and individuals. Equity is not served by dictating to people what food they will be given by the government. Where are the arguments about American liberty and freedom to choose when it comes to poor people accessing food?

It is important to note that when the CARES Act was being debated, there were members of Congress willing to forgo increasing the cap on CCC funds (which is what they have used to deliver the trade aid payments), in exchange for no increase in SNAP benefits. This signals that we could see continued barriers to delivering increased nutrition program benefits. That is troubling, especially in light of the recent report showing deep racial disparities in childhood hunger since the onset of the pandemic.

This is why policy matters. These programs have real impact on the ground on everyday lives. Subsidizing the largest and wealthiest white farmers creates barriers for small, diversified and BIPOC farmers. If we want equitable agriculture and food systems, policy change matters a whole lot, and we must all engage – me, you, SAFSF, everyone.

In Solidarity,

Traci Bruckner, SAFSF Policy Program Director, provides insights into key policy issues for funders of sustainable agriculture and food systems in the monthly Policy Connection newsletter for SAFSF members.