Key senator defends decisions on nutrition spending

Congress increased funding significantly for public nutrition programs in the $2 trillion coronavirus relief package, said the chairman of the Senate subcommittee in charge of USDA spending on Monday. Congress has come under criticism for unfairly funding food programs in favor of farmers.

North Dakota Sen. John Hoeven told the North American Agricultural Journalists he would seek even more money for agriculture.

Hoeven pointed to a $15.5 billion increase in SNAP funding as evidence that public nutrition programs were treated fairly. The coronavirus bill also boosted child nutrition programs, headlined by WIC and school lunch, by $8.8 billion and it allotted $450 million for food donations.

Farmers and ranchers will receive $16 billion in cash payments under the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program announced by Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue on April 17 while $3 billion would be spent to purchase fresh produce, dairy and meat products that would be given to food banks and other charities.

But a group of economists pointed out that farmers will get $4 for each $1 spent under the food bank program. They suggested the USDA should give priority to food aid. Meanwhile, some state officials and growers told Politico the USDA was slow to act when the food service industry virtually shut down and soaring unemployment sent a wave of people to food banks.

Senate Appropriations subcommittee chairman Hoeven, who had a hand in earmarking the money for USDA programs in the coronavirus package, said he believed the USDA would allow larger payments to producers than initially proposed. Some 28 senators asked President Trump over the weekend to eliminate payment limits for livestock, dairy and specialty crop growers. The USDA has said it will propose a maximum payment of $125,000 per commodity and $250,000 per farmer or entity.

“I think you may see some increase in them,” said Hoeven. “But I think you’re still going to have to have payment limits in the $16 billion proposal just because you have to get this money out to a lot of places.”

When the Senate convenes next week, Hoeven said he would sound out his colleagues on further aid to agriculture. “We know (there is) additional need.” The upcoming discussions will determine the amount that will be proposed.

The USDA is to receive an additional $14 billion, for its Commodity Credit Corp., after filing a June 30 financial statement. The CCC has broad authority to spend money to support farm income and commodity prices. At present, the CCC can spend up to $30 billion before seeking replenishment by Congress. “I would like to see us increase the CCC cap from $30 to $50 billion,” said Hoeven.

Congressional Democrats say they will see a temporary 15 percent increase in SNAP benefits when a new coronavirus bill is written.

The White House budget office is reviewing the USDA’s proposed rules for cash payments to producers; the USDA hopes to disburse the money during May, said Hoeven.

Arkansas Sen. John Boozman will become Senate Agriculture chairman next year, succeeding Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts, if Republicans maintain control of the Senate, said Hoeven, an Agriculture panelist. Boozman ranks third on the panel, behind Roberts, who is retiring, and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.