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USDA Secretary Says Despite Plant Closures, He Does Not Anticipate Food Shortages

Bloomberg via Getty Images
Bloomberg via Getty Images
A farmer leads dairy cows from the pasture to the milking barn at a creamery in Gallipolis, Ohio. The USDA launched a $3 billion plan to distribute food to families, called the Farmers to Family Food Box Program.

Visit almost any grocery store and you'll see how that food chain has been disrupted during the coronavirus pandemic. Even if food is in stores, millions of newly unemployed people may have trouble paying.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue has been talking up part of the federal response: a $3 billion plan to distribute food to families, called the Farmers to Family Food Box Program.

Under the program, the federal government will pay farmers to box up fresh produce, dairy and meat — food many have had to dispose of because of disruptions in the market — and supply it to places like food banks.

"When you have the shutdown very suddenly of institutional food settings such as restaurants, schools, colleges and others, then that causes a misalignment in supply," Perdue tells Morning Edition. "And we've had to scramble in order to try to readjust that, and this food box program is one of those things which we've tried to do."

Here is more from Perdue's conversation:

There are advocates for the poor who think that there are simpler ways to do this. Why not just give people more money through SNAP, the existing program to help people pay for food, which was something that was done during the Great Recession.

That may help one side of the equation ... it does not help those farmers and producers who have grown this food. They cannot make it to market because of the supply chain they've been used to dealing with — the institutional food market — is no longer there. Obviously, there are going to be advocates who always want to have more money or more food available. We have been extremely flexible in any of these rules, with SNAP benefits, food service, school feeding, all those kind of things. USDA has bent over backwards in order to provide flexibilities all over the country.

Do you anticipate widespread food shortages in the coming months?

No, I don't, Steve. We track daily our plant openings. One of the challenges we had in protein — meat, poultry, beef, pork — had been the closure of some of our processing plants there. And we've had infections in those plants that caused some temporary closures. Essentially all those plants are back open. We've turned the corner, and while some retailers are suggesting they may not have the degree of variety that they once had, we expect that to be cured very quickly. I do expect us to be back up to 85-90% production in probably a very few days or weeks.

What is the federal government doing to support companies that they've told under the Defense Production Act [that] they've got to keep open, they've got to keep producing meat, but they have workers who are getting sick.

We have uniform guidelines from [the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] as well as [the Occupational Safety and Health Administration] ... We give them the standard guidelines. We work with local health authorities, local elected officials, as well as the companies and the workers themselves to understand. We provided PPE equipment, personal protective equipment, face shields, masks and other things into the plants there, as well as testing where required to get the workers confidant so they're operating in a safe working environment.
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