Invest in food workers, farmers and local communities first: Our response to Congress’ COVID-19 aid package

Yesterday, the Senate approved a COVID-19 stimulus package—the largest aid package in modern American history. Out of the $2 trillion COVID-19 stimulus package, merely $9.5 billion is allocated to agriculture provisions. The USDA’s Commodity Credit Corp (CCC) is set to receive an additional $14 billion boost in funding authorization that would allow them to provide more direct aid to producers, but with the CCC’s history of providing aid to global food corporations instead of small farmers it’s unclear how much of the COVID-19 stimulus package will reach the small and medium scale farmers, and food and farm workers that are most burdened by this crisis. This moment has highlighted what HEAL Food Alliance members have known to be true—that food workers and family farmers are essential to the economy, and to each one of us. The COVID-19 stimulus package should reflect this. 

Even as many of us ‘shelter-in-place’,  the people harvesting our produce, the warehouse workers, delivery drivers and grocery store workers –  are all still going to work so that the rest of us have enough to eat. Many of them are still denied fair pay and safe working conditions, and many lack access to safety nets. For some, conditions are being worsened by increased demand.  Additionally, these workers, in constant contact with one another, with food, equipment and clients, need access to the best preventive health care practices and materials, and to testing, prompt treatment, and insurance protection should they contract the disease. 

Regional farmers and fishers are ready to feed our communities, but many lack basic infrastructure and financial resources that would enable them to scale up and deliver regionally to meet community needs and emergency food needs. Even before the pandemic, independent farmers and fishers were already struggling to maintain their operations which is why these types of support are critical to both their livelihoods and local food supplies at this time.  

Investment in these community members, not in corporations, is not only the right thing to do, it is a necessary response to this pandemic and to ensure that our communities can survive crises. The lives and livelihoods of frontline food workers, farmers, and our communities, and the resilience of our food system depends on strategic investment of the COVID-19 stimulus package today. 

Here are the policy priorities we’ve heard from the HEAL Food Alliance’s members, with additional input from allies

SUPPORT FOOD & FARM WORKERS

HEALTH AND SAFETY GUARANTEES FOR FOOD WORKERS:

  • All employers must be required to provide workers with information on how to protect themselves from the virus and guarantee safe workplaces including providing protective equipment, frequent and regular hand-washing breaks, and the required space for “social distancing.”  
    • Allocate funding as needed for language-appropriate information transfer
  • Farmworkers must be provided easy access to a sufficient amount of clean water at close proximity to the work site and the same health & safety information and protective equipment must be given to workers in crowded and substandard employer-provided housing.

EXPAND WORKPLACE STANDARDS AND THE RIGHT TO ORGANIZE:

  • Employers in industries expanding worker hours, including retail, warehousing and distribution, and delivery, must make overtime voluntary and guarantee overtime pay.
  • All food workers continuing to provide essential services should be entitled to receive HAZARD pay at a premium of time and a half. 
  • All food workers must have the right to organize so they can meaningfully exercise their labor rights and protect themselves and their communities. 

INCOME FOR ALL WORKERS:

  • Ensure that all workers receive the supplemental income they need to survive, regardless of immigration or employment status by: 
    • Expanding access to unemployment insurance to all workers
    • Setting up lost wage funds that covers full replacement of wages for both workers and for employers who pay lost wages
    • Providing monthly cash payments to all residents to support workers and their families during this crisis. 
    • Providing financial assistance to small businesses like street vendors, bodegas, and local eateries. 

PAID SICK DAYS AND HEALTHCARE FOR ALL:

  • Access to free testing and healthcare coverage for all workers regardless of immigration status, including H2A and migrant workers.
  • Legislate a minimum of 15 paid sick days per year, additional paid sick days in public health emergencies, and paid family leave, regardless of size of workplace.

PROTECTIONS FOR IMMIGRANTS

  • Immediate moratorium on the Public Charge Rule which would disqualify immigrants who use public assistance from obtaining permanent residency status. 
  • An immediate moratorium on all immigration enforcement, including repatriations and deportations of guest workers and non-status migrants  
  • An immediate release of all immigration detainees from detention centers and detention camps, and adequate health services for all. 
  • A removal of restrictions on work permits for guest workers and migrant workers who have been laid off or terminated, or who fall ill and need to remain in the country to access health care.  

EXPAND FOOD ACCESS

  • The definition of “homebound” for the Meals on Wheels program should include all seniors, who should be staying at home
  • Strengthen and expand Double Up Food Bucks and allow all program funds to cover direct sales from family-scale farms/boats
  • Establish an Emergency Tribal Food Assistance Fund and enhance the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR) for food, administration, and infrastructure, along with providing administrative flexibility.
  • Direct USDA to allow dual participation in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and FDPIR simultaneously for all those eligible.
  • Expand, increase, and protect food and nutrition programs like SNAP and Women, Infants and Children (WIC), with no discriminatory barriers including testing, citizenship, or work requirements, and expand healthy and sustainable options within those programs 
  • Direct the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to support regional farmers to supply food directly to food banks, schools, and other emergency food suppliers

ENABLE SMALL-SCALE/INDEPENDENT PRODUCERS TO PROVIDE FOOD FOR COMMUNITIES

  • Provide immediate funds for purchase of small-scale equipment including farm equipment, refrigeration, trucking, and delivery systems to ensure independent farmers can meet current demand 
  • Ensure all farmers, ranchers, and fisherpeople are included in any broader stimulus or farm relief package, with specific prioritization of small and mid-sized operations, limited resource producers, and farms operated by farmers of color and tribal nations who are currently not well served by existing crop insurance, revenue programs, Market Facilitation Program payments. 
  • Secure and protect land access and non-predatory credit and capital for independent producers, particularly producers of color
  • Equalize and expand access to crop insurance, technical assistance, low interest credit, and technical assistance for independent producers, particularly producers of color
  • Place moratorium on farm land foreclosures with an independent review on cause and effect
  • Provide emergency financial relief to independent farmers who are at risk of farm business closures due to the pandemic
  • Provide financial support for smaller and independent producers to pay a living wage to farmworkers  
  • The President and the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture should unlock existing federal emergency and disaster funding services directed specifically toward independent producers to feed their communities 
  • Direct USDA to utilize the authorities of the Commodity Credit Corporation Charter Act related to income stabilization to make emergency disaster payments to family-scale farmers/ranchers/fishermen and independent agriculture and seafood businesses to donate and distribute fresh and minimally processed foods, at market rates, directly to individuals, families, food hubs, and schools.

PROVIDE CREDIT, LOAN SERVICING, AND DEBT RELIEF FOR FARMERS AND RANCHERS

  • Local Farm Service Agency (FSA) and Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) offices should aggressively use every tool available to keep farm families in their homes and on the land 
  • Increase funding for direct and guaranteed loan programs and implement zero-interest operating loans for family-scale farmers, fishermen, and ranchers, while ensuring that borrower rights for FSA direct loans are extending to all guaranteed borrowers. Emphasize support for “socially disadvantaged” farmers and ranchers
  • Declare a two year national moratorium on farm foreclosures and require agriculture mediation for all future farm foreclosure proceedings after that point.
  • Forgive FSA loan debt held by small-scale producers and suspend debt payments (both principal and interest) for two years for all producers 
  • Adapt USDA and Small Business Administration (SBA) credit, financing and funding implementation requirements to meet the evolving demands of farmers, ranchers, and fishermen through measures such as extending deadlines, waiving cost-share requirements, ensuring effective outreach to producers or other actions.

BOLSTER LOCAL & REGIONAL FOOD SYSTEMS POISED TO FEED COMMUNITIES

  • Exempt farmers’ markets from definitions of “public places” and categorize them as “essential services” in order to continue feeding local communities. Provide financial assistance for farmers markets operators to implement safety measures to protect sellers and consumers.
  • Create access to emergency grants and loans to enable producers to purchase equipment to ensure continuity of food access and delivery systems 
  • Increase funding for USDA Local Agriculture Marketing Program (LAMP) to strengthen local food system resilience
  • Provide additional funding of at least $100 million for FDPIR to ensure tribes can adequately respond to food insecurity among their citizens.
  • In order to support small and very small meat and poultry processors, waive all USDA inspector overtime costs for this fiscal year for plants with a USDA Grant of Inspection with less than 50 employees. 
  • Create opportunities for regional food chain initiatives by expanding financing, technical assistance, and procurement support for community owned and “socially disadvantaged” farmers, fishers, and ranchers
  • Ensure that food safety rules support small farmers, fishers and regional food systems; expand training and technical assistance; make certifications more affordable and accessible (reducing penalty fines) for small farmers
  • Ensure regional food systems by promoting and funding worker-owned food and agriculture cooperatives during the duration of the pandemic
  • Subsidize expanded, energy-efficient on-farm and community cold storage and refrigerated vehicles 

SYSTEM REFORM FOR AGRICULTURAL RESILIENCE

  • Pass systemic fair pricing legislation, coupled with supply management, for food producers to strengthen rural economic resilience
  • Support fair agricultural contracts, farmer/grower/rancher rights, and competitive markets by reissuing and finalizing the USDA Farmer Fair Practice Rules
  • Prohibit crisis profiteering and corporate consolidation by enacting an immediate moratorium on acquisitions and mergers in the food and agriculture sector and enforce antitrust laws.
  • Ensure community food supply systems by investing in infrastructure for worker and neighborhood-owned food enterprises 
  • Ensure that any farms that receive a bailout implement stewardship practices; make real, measurable conservation a condition of eligibility for bailout

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