Restaurants across the country are working hard to get back to normal, farmers have lost valuable food service markets and a growing number of unemployed workers struggle to purchase food because of COVID-19. However, lawmakers are looking at ways to address these triple threats by helping restaurants serve meals to the needy. 

A key proposal is the Food Supply Protection Act, which was introduced by Senate Agriculture Ranking Member Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and the other Democrats on the Senate Ag Committee.

Some $1.5 billion of the $8 billion bill, provisions of which could be included in a major coronavirus aid bill the Senate is expected to consider in coming weeks, would go toward providing grants and reimbursement to groups that buy surplus food and increase donations to food banks, schools, and nonprofits. Restaurants also would be eligible to serve surplus food products. 

Stabenow told Agri-Pulse the bill is focused on helping people supplying the restaurants.   

“The big bottleneck, though, is in the folks who are producing, processing and packaging food that is going to the restaurants,” she said, adding she's happy to partner with restaurants on how food is distributed to food banks and reimbursing them for their efforts.

World Central Kitchen, a group founded by Chef José Andrés to help restaurants provide meals to victims of natural disasters, is one of the bill's backers. One of WCK's recipients is Lucille's, a popular restaurant in Houston. Chef Chris Williams started providing 335 meals a day to the needy on Monday under what was originally supposed to be a two-week contract with WCK that has now been extended indefinitely.

The Houston Food Bank provides ingredients for the meals. Funding from WCK offsets a small portion of the restaurant's cost of preparing and serving the meals. 

After the pandemic hit in March, Williams had already begun looking for ways to help with the city. “We were giving it to first responders. I’m talking about thousands of meals,” he told Agri-Pulse. “At least once a week, two times on that day, we go out and deliver to a couple of hospitals and give them like 200 meals at a time.”

The restaurant industry lost more than $80 billion in sales in March and April and laid off more than 8 million workers, according to the National Restaurant Association. The group and its allies argue a longer-term financial approach is needed as the industry struggles to recover.

Katherine Miller, vice president of impact at the James Beard Foundation, which also supports the Stabenow bill, said it could take some local restaurants a year and a half to return to normal operations.

“For the restaurant industry as a whole, what we’re looking at is 12-18 months of a full economic recovery that is going to need to be supported by every aspect of the federal government,” Miller told Agri-Pulse.

She said some 1% of independent restaurants, or about 4,500 establishments across the country, have permanently closed, and most restaurants are very hesitant to reopen at anything less than 50% capacity.

On top of that, more than 5 million of the industry's 11 million employees began collecting unemployment checks when restaurants began shutting down, she said. “We know that the economic hit on our supply chain was huge,” Miller said.

But she said some restaurants have been supplying meals and serving as relief kitchens during the pandemic, which provides its own benefits.

“Feeding centers, the relief meals that about 30% of restaurants have provided to their communities, have allowed people to go back to work, feed the most vulnerable, and kept the supply chain running,” Miller said.

Debbie Stabenow

Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich.  

The National Council of Farmer Cooperatives is one of several farm groups backing Stabenow’s bill. NCFC President Chuck Conner told Agri-Pulse there could be conflicts between how much flexibility should be given to the secretary of agriculture to distribute funds.

“They’ve got to work that out and have the proper balance of congressional approval and oversight, versus the latitude that any secretary needs to sort of meet the needs out there and put a program in place,” he said. Conner thinks the bill has a fairly good chance of passing in some form.

One of the largest farm groups in the country, the American Farm Bureau Federation, has not thrown support behind Stabenow’s bill.

“As with many bills being introduced right now, there are provisions in it that would be beneficial to agriculture. That said, we think there are better approaches, such as the Farming Support to States Act,” Andrew Walmsley, AFBF director of congressional relations told Agri-Pulse.

That bill was introduced by Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, Angus King, Ind.-Maine, and Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., and would provide money to states to help fund COVID-19 pandemic response efforts in agriculture and the rest of the food supply chain.

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Walmsley expects many different approaches “that have merit” to be rolled into a broader package. 

Stabenow also wants to see a 15% funding increase in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits folded into a larger package.

“It’s certainly the most efficient way to help families right now, many of whom have never needed to worry about putting food on the table for their families,” she said.

The National Restaurant Association is also encouraging Congress to pass a bill introduced by Rep. Jimmy Panetta, D-Calif., and Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., expanding the Restaurant Meals Program to serve SNAP participants during the COVID-19 pandemic.

It would also give USDA the authority to temporarily waive requirements for states and restaurants to quickly participate.

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