Vilsack talks SNAP, food banks, meat plants, learning from Japan
The top priority for Congress in dealing with food and agriculture in the time of COVID-19 should be to increase the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefit levels, said former Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, but he raised a range of other potential changes to the U.S. food and agriculture system on Friday during a webinar sponsored by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine Board on Agriculture and Natural Resources.
Asked for his priority in the next coronavirus aid package, Vilsack, a Democrat who served in the Obama administration and also served as governor of Iowa, said “the priority is to increase the SNAP benefit. We are going to have high unemployment for a long time, 9 to 10% unemployment by the end of the year.”
When the virus stay-at-home restrictions began, retail sales went up, Vilsack said, but for struggling families “unfortunately there has not been an increase by the federal government to increase the ability of those families to buy food. We are dealing with a benefit that is inadequate to meet the challenge. Hopefully Congress will look at it.”
Former California Secretary of Food and Agriculture A.G. Kawamura, a produce farmer from Orange County who also participated in the webinar, said Congress should consider increasing the “double bucks” program that allows SNAP beneficiaries to increase purchases of fruits and vegetables, and should also not ignore the importance of the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children.
Vilsack also said Congress should consider grants to food banks for storage and refrigeration.
“We haven’t figured out a system for a quick pivot for food to be donated,” he said, speaking of the situation in which restaurants closed and farmers and distributors lost that market.
“One of the lessons is to have a quicker pivot,” Vilsack said. “How do we create a circumstance so that food banks can receive items that need to be refrigerated and stored properly?”
Vilsack said the recently created Farmers to Families Food Box Program that distributes boxes of fruit, vegetables, precooked pork and poultry and dairy products has had “significant successes, but also some deep concerns” because “grants were given to entities that had no prior experience.”
Through the box program, the Navajo Nation is getting higher quality foods than in previous distribution programs, Kawamura said. Navajo leaders have said “they have never seen such beautiful food” because in the past they received food that hadn’t sold, Kawamura added.
Vilsack criticized the meat processing industry for not taking action to protect its workers when the coronavirus first appeared.
“There were a series of steps the industry could have taken but didn’t take,” he said, such as slowing down processing lines and keeping workers farther apart.
Noting that the shutdown of two or three hog production facilities disrupted the market and the facilities are designed for one size of hog, Vilsack said, “It underscores the importance of this industry rethinking the process,” including more automation.
Addressing concerns that automation eliminates jobs, Vilsack said, “It is incumbent on our country to invent and reinvent opportunities for people who work as hard with their hands as others work with their heads. The answer is not to fret over workers and stop doing innovation, but create a new economy.”
The government and food industry officials have always been proud of the efficiency in the U.S. food system, but Vilsack asked, “Has the time come to consider resiliency in the same way we consider efficiency? Is there a need to consider the possibility of having smaller facilities rather than one larger facility so there is resilience? Is the government thinking about providing assistance to create more, smaller facilities that could take on processing in a future crisis?”
“If companies have people working in the facility, they have a responsibility to keep workers safe. There were a series of steps the industry could have taken but didn’t take,” he said, such as slowing down processing lines and keeping workers farther apart.
One Iowa plant manager said that “people were getting sick due to their culture,” but it would have been better if that plant manager had asked what the company could do to keep them from getting sick, Vilsack said.
He noted he was fortunate to be secretary when farming incomes were at their highest in 2013 and 2014, but that even during those years 75% of farmers earned less than $10,000 from agriculture.
“The system is designed to reward size and efficiency. That is fine. We the consumer benefit from that. But farmers have to have off-farm income,” he said. If there are more local and regional food systems so that farmers could negotiate with alternative markets such as farmers markets and schools, “we may have a more resilient system,” he added.
Kawamura, who served in the Republican administration of California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, said he does not think resiliency needs to sacrifice efficiency because small operations do not have to put big facilities out of business.
If food becomes more expensive, should the affordability of food be handled through a higher SNAP benefit or higher minimum wage?, Vilsack asked.
The coronavirus pandemic has underscored the effect on minorities, people of color, people who have low incomes, he noted.
“This is an opportunity for us to learn about the access to food and health, ensure food access is expanded” and “make sure our systems address these inequities,” he said.
“My heart goes out to (Agriculture Secretary) Sonny Perdue” who has had to cope with the coronavirus pandemic while the USDA staff has been working from home, Vilsack said. But he now heads the U.S. Dairy Export Council, and noted that the food box program has also affected markets.
“The combination of government buying and food service coming back on line created a shortage of cheese,” Vilsack said. “That is good for farmers but not for consumers or for exports.”
U.S. dairy products are “now priced above the world market,” he said. “Cheese went from very low to very high in a matter of weeks. That creates volatility in the market.There is this issue of timing and how we organize our help so it does not create problems in the market.”
Vilsack also said that Asia was better prepared because it had gone through the SARS virus. Japan, he noted, has 125 million people, with a COVID-19 illness level of 18,000 and around 1,000 deaths, while the United States has 2 million people who became ill and 118,000 to 120,000 deaths.
“We have lessons to learn in how we respond,” Vilsack said. “They have learned more effectively and comprehensively than we did. They had less disruption to their economy and way of life because they were able to contain this in a more effective way.”
Florida Agriculture and Consumer Services Commissioner Nikki Fried, an elected Democrat, was also scheduled to participate in the webinar but canceled her appearance.