Senate Democrats, setting the stage for a new COVID-19 relief bill, are proposing to spend $8 billion to bolster the food supply chain and to redistribute surplus commodities. 

The Food Supply Protection Act, led by Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., the top Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee, includes funding for protective equipment for farmworkers and processing plant employees. The bill also would help food banks expand their cold storage and fund new partnerships with restaurants to feed needy Americans. 

The bill’s cosponsors include Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and every Democratic member of the Agriculture Committee. 

Farm groups that are supporting the bill include the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, National Farmers Union, National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, National Milk Producers Federation, National Pork Producers Council, United Egg Producers and U.S. Cattlemen’s Association. 

“The COVID-19 crisis has tested the strength of our nation’s food supply chain, creating a ripple effect that’s harming our families, farmers and workers,” said Stabenow. “This bill will help strengthen our food supply by redirecting food to families and helping farmers and processors retool their operations.” 

The bill includes $5.5 billion for grants, loans and loan guarantees to provide protective gear and COVID-19 testing capability for workers and to help farm co-ops and small to medium-scale processors to respond to the crisis by various means, including retooling processing facilities, purchasing new equipment and developing new product lines. Labor contractors also would be eligible for the assistance. 

Another $1.5 billion is earmarked for providing grants and reimbursement to groups that purchase surplus food and increase donations to food banks, schools and nonprofits. Restaurants also would be eligible to serve surplus food products. 

The foods eligible for the program would include meat, poultry, eggs, fluid milk, dairy products, fruit, vegetables, seafood, and other unprocessed or minimally processed commodities. 

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The remaining $1 billion would be provided to food banks and other nonprofits to pay for such needs as cold storage and refrigeration, transportation, personal protective equipment, and to cover temporary rental costs. 

Chuck Conner, president and CEO of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, said the bill would “complement the efforts of USDA to ensure that the great bounty produced by this country’s farmers and ranchers reaches Americans in need at this difficult and trying time.”

USDA is currently providing $16 billion in direct payments to farmers, using $9.5 billion authorized by a coronavirus relief bill in March, and has earmarked another $3 billion for distribution of surplus foods directly to the needy. The first $1.2 billion in contracts under the Farmers to Families Food Box program are being distributed through June. 

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