USDA announces $19 billion Coronavirus Food Assistance Program to support food producers

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President Donald Trump announced a $19 billion relief program for farmers through the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Labeled the USDA Coronavirus Food Assistance Program, it would include “direct payments to farmers as well as mass purchases of dairy, meat and agricultural produce to get that food to the people in need,” Trump said in a Friday Coronavirus Task Force press briefing.

The program will provide $16 billion in direct payments to farmers, ranchers and producers who “experienced unprecedented losses” during the pandemic, according to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue.

In addition, conditions at plants can be ripe for exploitation by the virus: Workers stand shoulder-to-shoulder on the line and crowd into locker rooms to change their clothes before and after shifts.

The virus has infected hundreds of workers at plants in Colorado, South Dakota, Iowa, Pennsylvania, Mississippi and elsewhere. The capacity of plants that remain open has also been hurt by workers who are sick or staying home because of fears of illness — though it's not clear by how much.

While company owners promise to deep clean their plants and resume operations as quickly as possible, it's difficult to keep workers healthy given how closely they work together.

“There is no social distance that is possible when you are either working on the slaughter line or in a processing assignment,” said Paula Schelling, acting chairwoman for the food inspectors union in the American Federation of Government Employees.

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The reduced production so far has been offset by the significant amount of meat that was in cold storage, said Glynn Tonsor, an agricultural economist at Kansas State University. Producers are also working to shift meat that would have gone to now-closed restaurants over to grocery stores.

Whether shoppers start to see more empty shelves or higher prices will depend on how many plants close and for how long.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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