Former Vice President Joe Biden on Wednesday President Donald Trump of reacting too slowly to the coronavirus driven market disruptions that forced farmers to dump milk and plow under crops while people were lining up for help from food banks.
“We don't have a food shortage problem, we have a leadership problem. And from the start, Trump has failed to support food producers (and has been) slow to order the government to buy food from farmers and send that food to food banks,” Biden said on a virtual roundtable hosted by Rep. Ron Kind, D-Wis.
Kind’s western Wisconsin district is crucial for Biden. Trump, who narrowly won Wisconsin in 2016, carried the 3rd District by 49% to 45% after Barack Obama had won it easily in 2008 and 2012.
Biden said the administration should appoint a “food system coordinator” to identify where food is needed, and he also talked up a bill called the FEED Act that would provide grants so restaurants could serve meals to low-income people, an idea promoted by chef Jose Andres in response to the pandemic.
Biden said the bill would allow “restaurants to stay open or reopen if it hires back their workers, it gives people going hungry access to meals and is good for farmers and ranchers, because it means restaurants will be able to buy and prepare those meals.”
Biden, who has been trying to make the case that Trump has broadly mishandled the COVID-19 crisis, said USDA should have acted sooner to buy up surplus crops and milk.
“The federal government should be purchasing milk from dairy farmers that lost their big purchasers like restaurants and schools and have been badly hit by this terrible trade policy that made no sense,” Biden said.
USDA has, in fact, started doing just that. The department last Friday launched a $3 billion Farmers to Families Food Box program, fashioned within several weeks, to deliver meat, fresh produce, milk and dairy products directly to needy people at locations across the country. At some delivery sites, cars lined for four miles or more to pick up the family-size boxes of food. Biden didn't mention the program, if he was aware of it.
The roundtable featured the president of the Wisconsin Farmers Union, dairy producer Darin Von Ruden, a community health service and a small business representative.
Von Ruden said farmers were frustrated by having to destroy food and suggested the disruptions underscore the need for supply management in dairy.
“How do we get to a system where farmers have more control over their own destiny is probably the biggest question, and that is something the Wisconsin Farmers Union has been working on for the last three years,” he said.
Von Ruden went on, “Why are we producing and continuing to overproduce all commodities, not just milk, but corn, soybeans, fruits and vegetables. … We’re seeing, because of the coronavirus now, issues of having to just dump milk, euthanize hogs, chickens and pigs, simply because we don't have the slaughtering capacity to deal with it because the workers in the plants are sick.”
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Biden didn’t address the supply management issue. However, he renewed his criticism of Trump’s China policy, citing the impact of retaliatory tariffs on farmers.
“The problem with China was China was stealing our intellectual secrets, China was stealing intellectual information, China was engaged in cyber warfare, China was insisting that a business to do business in China had to have a 51% ownership in China. (Those are) the things China was doing. It wasn't about milk. It wasn’t about agriculture,” he said.
Biden also criticized the administration for appealing a court decision that blocked USDA from making it harder for states to get waivers from work requirements for able-bodied adults who participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
Instead of providing “families the food they need, Trump is in court right now trying to condition food assistance on a work requirement,” he said.
A coronavirus relief bill that Trump signed into law in March suspended SNAP work requirements during the crisis.
In addition to launching the Food Box program, USDA also has announced signup for $16 billion in direct payments to farmers to compensate them for coronavirus-related market losses. On Wednesday, the White House announced that it was providing $225 million to rural health clinics to expand COVID-19 testing.
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