Merkley Calls on USDA to Quickly Deliver Food and Farm Assistance Appropriated by Congress

Merkley Calls on USDA to Quickly Deliver Food and Farm Assistance Appropriated by Congress

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Oregon’s U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley, the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that oversees funding for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), teamed up with Appropriations Committee Ranking Member Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), to press USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue to increase the agency’s efforts to speed funding for food aid appropriated by Congress to those in need.

Congress appropriated $36 billion to the USDA to help it respond to the coronavirus pandemic, including for critical nutrition assistance and direct support to agricultural producers.  However, only 20 percent of those funds have been obligated even as demand increases and farmers suffer.

“Particularly troubling is the delay in getting nutrition assistance out the door to address growing food insecurity across the country… This money should be getting out to the people who need it, not stuck in Washington caught up in red tape,” the senators wrote.

Vital programs like The Emergency Food Assistance Program, which supports the country’s food banks, have only obligated a fraction of the funding that Congress appropriated—leaving $1 billion appropriated for child nutrition programs untapped. 

Senator Merkley has continued to champion food assistance programs throughout the coronavirus crisis. Last week, for example, Senator Merkley pushed the USDA to ensure that Supplemental Food Assistance Program (SNAP) recipients can utilize food delivery and curbside pickup to help limit their exposure to the coronavirus, in addition to leading an effort to urge Amazon and Walmart to waive delivery fees and minimum order requirements for SNAP recipients.

To assist farmers and agricultural producers, Senator Merkley urged the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) to make agricultural businesses eligible for the Economic Injury Grant Program (EIDL).  When the SBA failed to follow the express directive of Congress to do so, Senator Merkley kept the pressure on until the administration agreed to make the assistance available to America’s farmers.

The full text of the senators’ letter is available here and follows below.

 

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Dear Secretary Perdue:

We write with deep concerns about the slow response from the department regarding

supplemental funding provided to address the coronavirus pandemic. Congress has appropriated

$36 billion to the Department of Agriculture for many important programs that the American

people rely on. From nutrition assistance to direct support to agricultural producers, this funding

is vital to supporting vulnerable citizens and rural America. However, as of May 8th, only $7

billion, less than 20 percent, of the money provided has been obligated. This is unacceptable.

Particularly troubling is the delay in getting nutrition assistance out the door to address growing

food insecurity across the country. Of the $850 million we appropriated for The Emergency

Food Assistance Program to provide critical resources to our nation’s foodbanks, only $117

million has been spent. Yet lines at foodbanks are growing and unemployment is surging. This

money should be getting out to the people who need it, not stuck in Washington caught up in red

tape. The Committee has also provided $100 million for the Food Distribution Program on

Indian Reservations and that money is still unspent. Child Nutrition Programs provide much

needed nutrition for children, especially now when most schools are closed. Yet $1 billion is

still stuck at the department. Puerto Rico and the other U.S. territories are still waiting for the

bulk of the funding we appropriated.

The Department requested some of the funding provided in these emergency spending bills

because of the urgent needs you identified. And this Committee supported those requests. For

example, you requested $4 million for the Foreign Agricultural Service to help bring staff back

to the United States from overseas posts. None of those funds have been spent. You requested

$3 million for the Farm Service Agency to assist the agency with increased farm loan demands.

None of those funds have been spent. While these amounts are small, the fact that you asked for

the funding, we provided it, and it still has not been obligated raises questions about the

Department’s ability to carry out its duties.

While we understand some programs are not set up to respond quickly to an emergency and they

take time to process, these are extraordinary times and we need to do better than the status quo.

We stand ready to assist the department in any way we can to respond to this pandemic.

Sincerely,