Washington Insider-- Monday

USDA Pushes Back at Food Program Effort

Here's a quick monitor of Washington farm and trade policy issues from DTN's well-placed observer.

Focus On Seasonal Produce Moves to Trump Administration

The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, USDA and Department of Commerce (DOC) have received two days of testimony via hearings August 13 and 20 on the matter of imports of fresh and seasonal produce into the U.S.

The sessions have seen produce growers from Florida and Georgia testify that shipments of these products from Mexico are negatively impacting U.S. growers, but also that the produce industry and others indicate the situation merely is a case of market competition and not trade-distorting efforts by Mexico.

The administration has pledged to develop a policy response by September 1. Special Ag Trade Negotiator at USTR Gregg Doud remarked at the August 20 session that he was struck by the “stark contrast” between growers and other ag groups.

“Everybody has put a lot of time and effort into their testimony and next step is for the administration to put time and effort into how to move this forward and that's exactly what we will do,” he said.

USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue acknowledged the issue has been “one of the most frustrating things” his agency has dealt with. “Help us figure out how we can help and mitigate the issues that you're facing and the challenges you are facing with something realistic that we can do under United States law and trade policy,” Perdue urged.

It remains to be seen if the administration will come back with a plan that will make it easier for U.S. produce growers to challenge imports from Mexico, a provision that was not included in the final U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA).

DEA Publishes Rule to Update Regs Based On 2018 Farm Bill

The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has published an interim final rule which reflects the 2018 Farm Bill provisions on hemp and reflecting Controlled Substances Act (CSA) amendments that have already taken effect, saying the changes do not add additional requirements to the regulations.

The DEA said there are no additional costs resulting from these regulatory changes and they are expected to result in annual cost savings for affected entities.

Comments are due by October 20.


Washington Insider: USDA Pushes Back at Food Program Effort

Bloomberg is reporting this week that Ag Secretary Sonny Perdue, facing bipartisan congressional pressure to maintain expanded food options for children during the coronavirus pandemic, is rejecting a move he said would amount to “a universal school meals program.”

With the fall semester kicking off both virtually and in-person, lawmakers want all options on the table if classrooms are forced to lock their doors once more. That concern turned reality over the past few weeks for schools from Michigan to Mississippi, Bloomberg says.

House Education and Labor Chairman Bobby Scott, D-Va., and Senate Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry ranking member Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., whose panels oversee school food programs, have called for the extension of two programs that provide free meals to children in low-income areas when school is out.

The Summer Food Service Program and the Seamless Summer Option operate not only over summer break, but also during unanticipated closures — such as when schools shuttered in the spring due to COVID-19 outbreaks.

Perdue rejected the request to renew all nationwide waivers for unexpected closures through the next school year. “Americans are a generous people, and there are already opportunities for breakfast, lunch, and snacks, and weekend meals for children in need,” he said in a Thursday letter.

“While we want to provide as much flexibility as local school districts need during this pandemic, the scope of this request is beyond what USDA currently has the authority to implement and would be closer to a universal school meals program which Congress has not authorized or funded,” Perdue added.

Program advocates criticized the USDA position. “The tragic rise in child hunger across the country will surely get worse,” Scott said last week. He called Perdue's decision “irresponsible.” The Agriculture Department can extend the waivers under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act Scott and Stabenow said in an Aug. 14 letter.

Perdue countered that his agency continues to “utilize all options within our statutory and budget authority and with the funding that Congress provided” with the third coronavirus stimulus law. He offered the department's technical assistance if Congress were to pursue an expanded program.

The administration has issued extensions for other nationwide waivers, allowing meal service outside of traditional times and in nongroup settings for the 2020-2021 school year. The USDA didn't renew a waiver for the area eligibility requirement, which limits “open site” meal service for summer meals programs to places where at least half the children are in low-income households.

Democrats aren't alone in calling for USDA action, Bloomberg said. In fact, Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., spearheaded a recent letter from 20 GOP senators asking Perdue to use waivers, grants, or reimbursements to allow schools and sponsor organizations to feed students learning both in-person and remotely.

“As the school year begins, the challenges brought on by the COVID emergency persist,” they wrote.

Expanded food options have “broad bipartisan support,” said Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minn., an Agriculture Committee member who signed a similar July 29 letter from more than 30 senators, arguing that the president's attempt to bypass Congress on stimulus is offering only limited economic relief, the Washington Post reported this weekend — suggesting that efforts to increase antivirus programs are increasingly supported.

The food programs are but two of the numerous programs that are being challenged during the current outbreak. For example, Democrats have not restarted meaningful economic relief negotiations since the President's recent executive actions and congressional aides do not expect talks to resume until after Labor Day, the Post says. Many economic experts say the absence of a broader economic deal with Congress is sharply limiting the recovery and is hurting unemployed Americans, given the administration's challenges in implementing new jobless benefits, the Post says.

The report criticizes the administration's recent efforts aimed at bypassing stalled stimulus negotiations and argued that its directives have “produced limited economic relief for Americans hurt by the coronavirus pandemic, despite promises by top White House aides that help would come within weeks.”

So, we will see. Now the political campaigns are increasingly dominating the media and ratcheting up the already high levels of toxicity. These are increasingly important fights and should be watched closely as they proceed Washington Insider believes.

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