Produce industry groups are asking the Agriculture Department for up to $5 billion in payments to compensate growers and dealers for losses they suffered when restaurants, schools and colleges suddenly closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

An emergency relief plan developed by the United Fresh Produce Association, Western Growers Association and other national and regional industry groups, also asks USDA to buy fruits and vegetables for food banks to temporarily increase the cash benefit that participants in the Women, Infants and Children nutrition program can use to buy fruits and vegetables. 

The plan warns that the immediate assistance may be insufficient for losses that occur into the summer and fall. 

The $2 trillion Phase 3 economic stimulus bill earmarked $9.5 billion for coronavirus-related losses to livestock producers, specialty crop growers and local food systems. That bill, and an earlier Phase 2 bill, also included $500 million for WIC, $8.5 billion for child nutrition programs as well as additional funding for commodity purchases for food banks. 

“Almost overnight, critical movement and economic activity in the fresh produce supply chain vanished as restaurants, food establishments, hospitality businesses and schools were shuttered, and the retail industry struggles to adjust,” the groups say in the introduction to the proposal for the Produce Market Stabilization Program. 

Gathering restrictions and stay-at-home orders imposed in March resulted in a market loss of 100 million restaurant meals, 30 million school lunches and 15 million school breakfasts over a five-day period.

“The entire fresh produce industry supply chain is reeling from this sudden and immediate shut down of an estimated 40% of all produce consumed in America,” the plan says. 

Produce dealers and growers of fruit, vegetables and tree nuts would be eligible for payments covering losses between March 1 through June 30. 

The growers’ covered losses would include canceled contracts or purchase contracts that are reduced as well as unpaid or partially unpaid invoices. 

Dealers would be eligible for payments covering their demonstrated actual economic losses due to the pandemic-caused shutdown of the food service sector and other customer sales.

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The WIC cash value benefit for fruits and vegetables would be increased to $20 a month per participant, from the current rate of $9 for children and $11 for women, "for the duration of the emergency declaration to better align with dietary recommendations," according to the plan.

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