April 29, 2021
As the cherry blossoms hover above the (relatively) tourist free Tidal Basin, spring has officially arrived in the District of Columbia. With the pollen comes a flurry of action at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the White House, and in Congress to address the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic, now nearing its 15th month. Because so much has been happening in pandemic-related farm policy, it is a good time to take stock and look back at the federal response to the pandemic and look forward towards what policies may determine the ‘new normal’ in our food system.
It can be hard to remember all the different pieces of the federal farm and food policy response to the COVID-19 pandemic, so we’ve compiled a timeline beginning in March of 2020. The list includes the relevant major pieces of legislation and most relevant USDA relief programs in an effort to be brief.
The American Rescue Plan (ARP) Act of 2021 is a $2 Trillion, wide-ranging response to the ongoing pandemic that was passed and enacted into law in March 2021. The bill contains provisions that provided for additional $1,400 direct payments to individuals, and extensions of enhanced unemployment insurance, SNAP and WIC benefits, and eviction and foreclosure protection for some families. For the farm and food system, ARP also contained provisions to forgive $4 Billion in FSA held debt for BIPOC farmers and ranchers, and roughly $4 Billion to purchase additional commodities for emergency food assistance, strengthen supply chains, support small processors by assisting with overtime costs, and expand online SNAP purchasing technology. More details on the ARP can be found in our previously published blog here.
Once ARP had been passed, USDA began moving quickly to establish a program to replace CFAP-2 and announced the new Pandemic Assistance for Producers (PAP) program less than two weeks later. PAP includes several elements that are mandatory Congressional directives from the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 (passed in December but not yet implemented) including:
Payments to cattle and row crop producers under the CFAP-2 program have already started, while other payment adjustments for specialty crop and swine producers are currently in process.
Where USDA had more program flexibility, and unexpended funding from the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 and new money from ARP, they began working to design a program to support producers directly and begin investments in food system infrastructure and capacity. To start, USDA reopened CFAP-2 for new applications for at least 60 days and made $2.5 Million available to grassroots organizations to assist with outreach to social disadvantaged farmers who may not have applied during the previous open period.
With $6 Billion in total funding for PAP programs, USDA began holding listening sessions with producers, grower groups, farm advocates, and conservation groups where they sought input on how the major elements of CFAP-2 (direct payments to farmers and the food box program) could be further improved to reach small-scale, local, organic, and BIPOC producers who have struggled to secure COVID support under the previous Administration.
Another element of the PAP is $500 Million for existing USDA programs including, the Specialty Crop Block Grant, the Farming Opportunities Training and Outreach Program, the Local Agricultural Marketing Program, as well as several more. While vital, these additional investments led to an unusual situation where several grant programs with open Requests for Proposals (RFPs) had to be modified very quickly which led to some confusion among the applicants as not all grant funding had the same requirements and cost share obligations. NSAC and many other groups worked with USDA to provide stakeholder input to facilitate a clear and orderly process, but the 2021 grant cycle for several programs is highly irregular and continues to evolve.
Much of the PAP program is still in development and we will not know its full scope for several more weeks. NSAC has provided several proposals to the Administration to improve upon the framework provided by CFAP-2 including:
Even as USDA continues work to build out PAP, a great deal of attention amongst policy makers and advocates is turning to the next Reconciliation package. It seems likely that the Administration will continue to work to build support for their America Jobs Act, a $2.25 Trillion infrastructure bill, or a bipartisan compromise package alternative to fund traditional infrastructure investments in roads, dams, bridges, airports, energy grids, as well as telecommunications networks to achieve universal broadband access. If there is no bipartisan consensus proposal that can secure 60 votes in the Senate, it is very likely that the Administration will work with Congressional leaders to pass the majority of the American Jobs Act by Reconciliation – as they did with the American Rescue Plan last month. It also seems likely that if Congress chooses to move this spending package by Reconciliation, they may consider merging it with the American Families Plan, another package of spending proposed by the Administration to support working families with provisions to improve access to childcare, universal pre-kindergarten, paid family leave, and free community college tuition.
It looks like a very, very busy Spring in D.C. Stay tuned for more updates on PAP on other COVID relief programs!