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

May 15, 2020
Originally published on May 18, 2020 12:17 am

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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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We've been questioning the U.S. official trying to match the American food supply with food consumers. Visit almost any grocery store, and you will see how that food chain has been disrupted. There are empty shelves. Even if food is in stores, millions of newly unemployed people may have trouble paying. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue has been talking up one part of the federal response, a plan to distribute food to families called the Farmers to Family Food Box Program.

SONNY PERDUE: When half of our consumption is consumed outside the home, it's a dual track of production and processing for food service market versus the home consumer in grocery stores. So that misalignment 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. 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 tried to do. So it's a simple process. I guess the best analogy is we're on a four-lane interstate highway, and two of those lanes become blocked for a crash or whatever reason. We all can identify what happens after that.

INSKEEP: So you're trying to deal with this traffic jam because there's food that would have been going to a restaurant - restaurant is closed, but somebody still wants to eat it, so how do you get it into a grocery store or into somebody's hands? Now, why would a food box program for people who need assistance be the way to do that?

PERDUE: This was a program that President Trump asked me to put together, a $3 billion program of helping to realign and purchase this food from farmers who were having to destroy that good food because there's no market and create, really, another market through our nonprofits.

INSKEEP: But at the same time, you probably know 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 is something that was done during the Great Recession?

PERDUE: That may help one side of the equation, Steve. It does not help those farmers and producers who have grown this food that cannot make it to market because of the supply chain they've been used to dealing with, institutional food market, is no longer there. Obviously, there's 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 in - all over the country.

INSKEEP: You know, I'm realizing your analogy with the highway is in some ways literal because we're talking about transporting food that had a particular route and had a particular distributor. And that system doesn't work, and so it has to be moved by a different route and by different people. Are you confident you have chosen the right companies to create these distribution networks, in some cases, almost from scratch?

PERDUE: These are small and large food distributors all over the country whose market has essentially disappeared because their customers are shut down. We believe we have the best of the best. Obviously, we're going to comb through that list and see if we missed. We will go back and audit these firms to make sure they are doing exactly what they applied that they applied that they could do.

INSKEEP: Mr. Secretary, do you anticipate widespread food shortages in the coming months? And if so, of what?

PERDUE: 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.

INSKEEP: What is the federal government doing to support companies that they've told under the Defense Production Act they've got to keep open - they've got to keep producing meat, but they have workers who are getting sick? What are they doing to support the plant? What are they doing to take responsibility for the workers?

PERDUE: Well, first of all, we had uniform guidelines from CDC, as well as OSHA, the worker's safety people here recognized in the country. 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, the personal protective equipment - face shields, masks and other things - into the plants there, as well as testing. We're required to give the workers' confidence that they're operating in a safe working environment.

INSKEEP: Secretary Perdue, thanks for the time.

PERDUE: Thank you, Steve. Have a good day.

INSKEEP: Sonny Perdue is the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.