Congress agrees on funding for farmers, hunger relief in spending bill to avert shutdown

Democrats wanted more food aid. Republicans wanted payments for farmers. They passed both.

UPDATE, 10/1/2020: The Senate passed this continuing resolution last night, hours before the deadline to avert a shutdown.

For a brief moment earlier this week, it looked like food and farming issues might scuttle Congressional negotiations on a stopgap funding bill that will keep the government open through mid-December.

Pictured above: Queen Anne’s County Maryland Farm Service Agency Key Program Technician Jessica Clarke talks with Ethan Whiteside, Owner/Operator of WF Angus who recently applied for FSA’s Coronavirus Food Assistance Program.

Democrats initially introduced a continuing resolution that did not include flexibility for the government to spend beyond the $30 billion limit in direct payments to farmers through the Commodity Credit Corporation—the pot of money intended to mitigate the impact of various trade wars and, now, Covid-19 in farm country. Republicans called this a non-starter. 

After Democrats pushed for and received more funding for hunger relief and agreed to replenish the farmer payment funds, the continuing resolution to fund the government until December 11 passed late Tuesday evening. It is expected to pass in the Senate and will likely be signed by the President in time to avert a September 30 government shutdown, Politico reports.

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Here’s what’s included in the bill: A guarantee that the already-announced $14 billion second round of payments to farmers via the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP) will proceed without delay. Democratic Senator Debbie Stabenow of Michigan trumpeted the inclusion of a provision in the compromise that prohibits USDA from spending any of the money to help fossil fuel companies. It’s unclear if this is really a change in policy—Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said recently that he had no intention of routing farm aid payments to the oil and gas industries. 

We’ve reported that the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program has sent huge payments to some farmers while others received nothing. The second round of payments announced last week does include an option for farmers to apply for payments based on past sales, a wish-list item for small-scale and sustainable farming advocates we interviewed back in July. 

A guarantee that the already-announced $14 billion second round of payments to farmers via the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP) will proceed without delay.

The continuing resolution also provides for the continuation of several hunger relief efforts: P-EBT, or Pandemic-EBT, which makes money available for families who use free or reduced school lunch during the regular school year, has been extended until September 2021. It also extends several pandemic-related Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps) flexibilities for another year and extends the school meals program to include childcare centers.  

Other pandemic relief wish-list items, including a modest increase in SNAP payments across the board and bailout money for restaurants, will have to to wait for the next round of Covid-19 relief negotiations in Congress. Those talks fell apart back in August after neither party could agree on if and how to extend some of the core Covid-19 relief policies like additional unemployment insurance.

H. Claire Brown is a senior staff writer for The Counter.