In so many ways, this has been a year of overwhelming challenge and change for our country. Much of our collective focus has rightfully been on the public health response to COVID-19. Now, with fall just around the corner, the national conversation is dominated by the school year ahead — how and when to reopen schools, and how to protect our children and educators. All of this is happening as the country grapples with big questions about race and justice amid heightened political division. There are no slow news days in 2020.
With so much happening at once, it can be easy to forget about a large segment of our community whose lives and work have been drastically altered by the pandemic. It is harvest season all over Central Washington, and the growers and processors of the food we eat are struggling. Traditional market channels like restaurants and schools are almost entirely closed, and others, like farmers markets, have been heavily impacted. As farmers adapt to these immediate losses of revenue and uncertain economic prospects, they are increasingly taking on new safety costs associated with production, processing and distribution of their products.
We’ve seen how quickly the virus can spread among agricultural workers, with devastating effects on families and entire communities. In places like Yakima County, Okanogan County, and here in the Wenatchee Valley, we have seen clusters of positive cases related to agricultural operations and housing facilities.
And yet we cannot stop producing food. As much as we’d like them to, crops will not wait to ripen until the virus is eradicated. Not to mention there are farm families who depend on this income. Our local economy depends on this income. The pandemic has made clear: agricultural workers are essential workers. The farming community needs immediate financial support to cover the costs of added worker safety protections while weathering the changes in markets caused by the pandemic.
That is why I have introduced H.R. 7656, the Farm and Food Emergency Assistance Act. The bill would establish an emergency grant program under USDA to help cover the costs of keeping workers healthy and food safe. The bill would provide $100 million for:
- costs associated with protecting employee and consumer health and safety, such as for personal protective equipment;
- costs associated with transitioning to a different businesses model, such as direct-to-consumer, online sales, or delivery;
- costs of purchasing or leasing equipment for food processing, storage, or refrigeration; and
- other similar costs arising from adjusting to the COVID–19 pandemic.
Under the bill, applications for emergency funds must be simple, easily accessible, and delivered in a timely manner. Eligible expenses are retroactive to the start of this pandemic.
If you would like to learn more about the Farm and Food Emergency Assistance Act, please join me for a Zoom webinar on Tuesday, Aug. 11 at 3:15 p.m. You can register and submit questions here: https://wwrld.us/SchrierFood. We’ll hear directly from Central Washington growers and processors about how COVID-19 has impacted their businesses.
As the only member of the House Committee on Agriculture from the Northwest, it is my honor and responsibility to fight for our region’s farms. We are facing a crisis that has not only affected the health of millions of Americans, but has fundamentally changed how farmers do their jobs. To keep their employees safe and the country fed, they need our support now more than ever.