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Op-Ed | Washington Monthly | May 19, 2020

How Democrats Can Start to Protect America’s Food

Congressional Oversight

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Life under COVID-19 is awash in tragedy and frustration. People are stuck in their homes. Millions have lost their jobs. Front-line healthcare providers don’t have the personal protective gear and other equipment they need. What makes it all even worse is the sense that so much of this was avoidable.

Had the Trump administration arranged adequate testing in late winter, for example, prolonged nationwide lockdowns may have been unnecessary. At the same time, a more effective federal response—with measures like regular, direct cash assistance to citizens, coupled with rent and residential mortgage cancellation—could have alleviated much of the economic devastation.

But while examples of needless suffering abound, few capture the feeling of futility as poignantly as a tweet from José Andrés last week. The celebrity chef juxtaposed two images: one of a sea of cars awaiting help at a food bank, the other of a mound of abandoned, soon-to-be rotting potatoes.

Of course, connecting our broken food supply chains—i.e. the mechanisms by which our food is not only raised and harvested, but packaged, transported, and sold—may represent a formidable challenge, but it is one that many feel we should be able to overcome. Unfortunately, although unsurprisingly, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue can’t seem to be bothered to even make the attempt.

Congressional Democrats cannot allow this callous abdication of responsibility to go unaddressed. Through rigorous oversight, lawmakers can draw media attention to the issue and make clear that the pain that millions are experiencing now is deeper than it had to be because of the administration’s unwillingness to take on powerful interests or fight for regular people. The accompanying outrage and political pressure are among the only things that may make Trump officials listen and do better. That would be a welcome first step because there are actions they could take to improve the situation.

School and restaurant closures are changing the way millions eat each day. A food industrial complex designed to package and ship goods in bulk to professional kitchens is struggling to adapt, leading to shocking levels of waste. Meanwhile, crushing unemployment and insufficient federal assistance has meant that many are struggling to get food from any source.

There are, of course, significant logistical challenges separating the supply and the demand. For example, food banks are not well-equipped to accept industrial-sized bags of shredded cheese, and yet retooling packaging systems to produce more appropriately-sized 8 oz. bags would be a sizable expense, especially if one assumes that restaurant supply chains may one day recover. It also costs more to harvest crops than it does to destroy them, meaning that many farmers simply cannot afford to donate their produce. And it can take time to match supply with demand, especially across state boundaries.

Ordinarily, this is where the federal government might step in to open its large wallet and flex its tremendous coordinating capacity. Some simple steps, such as paying farmers to harvest and donate their crops, would go a long way. But a motivated and energetic Department of Agriculture (USDA) would be seeking to do so much more, including working to connect farmers with food banks across the country; increasing storage capacity for food items; and paying restaurants to serve as distribution hubs for food. Then, there are ways in which the federal government can help municipalities deliver food from restaurants to poorer communities where reliance on App-based delivery won’t work.

Perdue’s USDA is only energetic, however, when it is punishing the poor and abetting agricultural consolidation. Instead of addressing the above action items and responding to pleas from local lawmakers, USDA spent the crisis’ early days pushing ahead with its cruelest project: an effort to kick almost a million people off of food stamps, which was only halted thanks to a judge’s injunction in mid-March.

As COVID-19 puts meatpacking workers at even greater risk than normal, USDA has been approving meat processing plants’ requests to increase their line speeds. Studies have shown that faster processing speeds lead to higher rates of injury and food contamination. Under our present circumstances, this move is even more disastrous as it makes proper social distancing and other precautions all but impossible.

The solutions Perdue has offered are not really solutions at all, but plainly disgusting attempts to exploit the crisis to hurt some of our society’s most vulnerable members. While some lawmakers talk of providing hazard pay and other benefits for essential workers, Perdue has been looking for ways to cut wages for migrant farmworkers in the United States on H-2A visas.

Meanwhile, USDA remained silent about the unfolding crisis in food distribution. Only after waiting more than a month after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidance discouraging people from dining in restaurants, USDA finally announced its plans to ramp up food purchases. At the time of the announcement, officials predicted that it would take another month before food made it to food banks. That was too late to make a difference for many farmers who had already disposed of their crops. And it remains to be seen whether USDA’s pledged support will be sufficient to stem losses moving forward. News that the Department passed over qualified companies to award multi-million dollar contracts to firms with limited experience in large scale food distribution does not bode well.

Almost a month after USDA’s announcement, even Trump has come to recognize that these delays represent a political liability. Last week, he commenced efforts to cover up his culpability by boosting his administration’s (likely-too-limited) steps to address the problem through the USDA’s new food purchasing program. But just because he wants to paper over his mistakes, does not mean he should be allowed to get away with it.

This administration’s refusal to act has led to immense suffering. It is up to House Democrats to ensure that that fact is not forgotten. They must draw the direct line between the administration’s choices and the painful reality on the ground. Hearings with Secretary Perdue would likely emphasize the senselessness of his agency’s lethargy through March and April (and its continued missteps). Loud oversight efforts might also encourage some of USDA’s career civil servants to blow the whistle for as of yet unknown misconduct.

By making clear that there is someone responsible for the agony, oversight is likely to generate pressure for the agency to act differently. In fact, there’s a precedence for this. Soon after Politico published an unflattering expose on USDA’s delays, the department announced additional funding for food purchases. If one article can help accomplish that, imagine what sustained pressure from Congress might do.

Congressional Oversight

More articles by Eleanor Eagan

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