Congress Clears Another Round of Pandemic Aid with Historic Support for BIPOC Farmers

Posted on Friday, March 19th, 2021 by Guest Blogger

The historic American Rescue Plan was passed last week. Learn more about what is included for food and agriculture in this blog from the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC), of which CalCAN is a member. NSAC advocates for federal policy reform for the sustainability of food systems, natural resources, and rural communities. See the original post here. You can find other COVID-19 related resources here

Nearly a year since the coronavirus pandemic first swept across the country — shuttering businesses, restaurants, and schools alike — the finish line for another round of COVID relief is finally within sight. This week, Congress took steps to move forward additional COVID relief by passing the American Rescue Plan (ARP). Bouncing back and forth in the Capitol building over the past month, the ARP was first drafted and passed in the House, modified and passed in the Senate, and finally passed in the modified form by the House and now heads to the President’s desk.

The ARP is one of the largest recovery and stimulus bills in history, passing Congress by the narrowest of margins. The $1.9 trillion dollar legislative package contains numerous provisions to help Americans recover from the coronavirus pandemic including resources for vaccination efforts and public health, extensions of unemployment insurance, $1,400 stimulus checks to eligible individuals, a child care tax credit, aid to state and local governments to maintain services, housing assistance, support for school reopenings, and support for flagging pension funds to pay retirees. Many of these provisions were put forward in the Biden-Harris administration’s pandemic response proposal while other elements were added during drafting and debate in Congress.

Comprehensive reviews of ARP provisions – and the ways in which they may be implemented – are covered by experts elsewhere so in this blog we will focus on the agricultural and food system related provisions.

Food and Agriculture Provisions

While the agriculture components are relatively small compared to the rest of the bill, amounting to $16 billion, or less than one percent of total spending authorized in the Senate bill, they are significant and will provide the newly appointed Secretary of Agriculture with additional resources to help farmers mitigate the prolonged impacts of this pandemic, especially marginalized communities most impacted.

ARP includes funding to provide relief for BIPOC farmers, provide direct payments to farmers, purchase farm commodities for distribution to families in need, and strengthen food supply chains and processing capacity disrupted by the pandemic. While many of the specifics regarding exactly how funding will be distributed is up to the Administration, the bill includes many provisions that reflect NSAC’s top priorities and those championed by sustainable agriculture allies. These include:

  • Direct Aid for Black, Indigenous, and Farmers of Color – The largest portion of the ag-related funding in the bill will provide historic debt relief to Black, Indigenous, and farmers of color (BIPOC), as well as over $1 billion to improve land access, address heirs property issues, establish an equity commission, and create a legal center to provide legal advice and resources to BIPOC farmers. Under the debt forgiveness proposal, USDA would pay up to 120 percent of outstanding farm debt held by BIPOC farmers on farm loans made directly by USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA) or through private lenders (i.e. Farm Credit, ag banks) with USDA guarantees. Farmers could use the additional relief funds to pay any taxes owed as a result of the debt relief. According to estimates from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), approximately 15,000 BIPOC farmers will receive an average debt relief payment of $20,000.

    The ARP proposal is very similar to provisions proposed by the House Agriculture Committee and those championed by Senators Reverend Raphael Warnock (D-GA), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), Ben Ray Luján (D-NM), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), and Tina Smith (D-MN), who introduced similar proposals in the Emergency Relief for Farmers of Color Act, which has garnered widespread support from agricultural stakeholders in recent weeks.

    It is important to note that the Senate bill provides USDA with tremendous flexibility in how the additional relief is rolled out. We are heartened to see Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack issue a statement in support of these provisions and acknowledge the systemic racism and cycles of debt that have harmed so many BIPOC producers for so long.

  • Purchase of Agriculture Commodities and Food Assistance – The bill also provides billions in funding to purchase agricultural commodities from farmers and to support their delivery to families through non-profits, emergency feeding organizations, and restaurants. To maximize the impact of this investment, NSAC will be working with USDA to ensure they incorporate the recommendations contained in the Farmers to Families Food Box Program report recently published by NSAC and the Harvard Food Law Policy Clinic.
  • Strengthening Supply Chains – The bill also includes billions in funding to strengthen supply chains and build further resilience in response to the pandemic. This includes providing grants and loans for equipment and supplies (i.e. PPE, test kits) as well as infrastructure investments for food processors, farmers markets, food banks and producers to respond to the pandemic and protect workers in a manner similar to Senator Debbie Stabenow’s (D-MI) The Food Supply Protection Act, or Food and Farm Emergency Assistance Act, introduced by Rep. Kim Schrier (D-WA-8).
  • Supporting Small Processors – The bill provides $100 million in financial assistance and reduces USDA overtime inspection fees that will help ensure livestock and poultry processing capacity for small meat plants that have been at maximum capacity during the pandemic. NSAC thanks Senators Jerry Moran (R-KS) and Michael Bennet (D-CO) and Representatives Angie Craig (D-MN-2) and Dusty Johnson (R-SD-AL) for leading efforts to address costly USDA fees in their Small Packer Overtime and Holiday Fee Relief COVID-19 Act.
  • Food Assistance Benefits – The Senate bill extends the 15 percent increase in the maximum SNAP benefit included in the December COVID response package from June 30, 2021 to September 30, 2021, as well as extending the Pandemic EBT program throughout the duration of the pandemic.
  • Online SNAP Expansion – The bill provides $25 million to USDA to support the expansion of online SNAP through investments in technology modernization and increased technical assistance. This is similar to the Expanding SNAP Options Act that was introduced by Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Rep Robin Kelly (D-IL-2) last year.

How Did We Get Here?

In order to pass this relief package with such thin margins, the slim Democratic majority in both chambers of Congress used a legislative tool known as “budget reconciliation” to streamline and expedite passage of additional COVID relief. This process essentially allows the Senate to bypass the filibuster and pass spending-related bills with only a simple majority, rather than the 60 vote threshold required for most Senate bills.

As part of Congress’s annual budget process, each chamber typically passes a budget resolution, which may contain reconciliation instructions to authorize additional, or cut existing, spending. The long overdue budget resolution for Fiscal Year 2021, which was released earlier this year, included reconciliation instructions for both the House and Senate aimed at providing additional pandemic relief, as outlined in the Biden-Harris administration’s $1.9 trillion response plan. This resolution set the parameters for the relief package that made its way through the House, then the Senate, and will soon be signed into law.

Next Up: Infrastructure!

We anticipate that Congress will use the FY 2022 budget reconciliation bill as an opportunity to authorize additional funding for infrastructure-related projects over the coming months. However, it will take Congress some time to work through new political confirmations, annual appropriations, and the introduction of marker bills so it is unlikely that a bill will be taken up before the Summer. While it is uncertain the extent to which food and agriculture priorities might be included in an infrastructure package, NSAC and our allies will be pushing to ensure climate and small meat processing infrastructure are on the table during budget debates on Capitol Hill.

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