Potato packing

A pre-COVID-19 Idaho potato packing operation. The latest round of federal COVID aid will benefit the potato and onion industries.

The coronavirus relief package approved at the end of the year includes aid for the potato and onion industries.

The $900 billion package provides:

• $1.5 billion for USDA food purchases for people in need.

• $225 million for supplemental payments to specialty crop producers who had losses.

• An additional $100 million for USDA’s Specialty Crop Block Grant program.

• Funding for ag-worker protection.

It also directs $75 million to the Gus Schumacher Nutrition Incentive Program benefiting Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) recipients who buy fresh fruits and vegetables, and increases maximum SNAP benefits by 15% through June 30.

National Potato Council CEO Kam Quarles said the additional block-grant funding will help back-fill costs associated with COVID-19, such as providing personal protective equipment for workers or retooling operations. The money will be distributed through the established Specialty Crop Block Grant program but is separate from regular grant funds.

USDA is yet to write regulations for the additional supplemental payments for crop losses, he said.

“It took a while to get to this point, but it is very positive that we have certainty, both on federal funding for ag for the rest of the fiscal year and also on this version of COVID relief,” Quarles said.

“It clearly is not enough,” he said, “and Congress and the new administration are going to have to sit down and work out an additional package that will more fully address the ongoing challenges of COVID as we hopefully look to a reopening economy as the vaccine rolls out over these next six months.”

Quarles also said the new federal budget maintains funding for National Institute of Food and Agriculture potato-breeding research grants at $2.75 million and for a third year keeps USDA from limiting access to potatoes in the school breakfast program.

National Onion Association Chief Executive Greg Yielding said funding for USDA food purchases is important because the program “has had a big impact and has been very successful.”

He said USDA’s Farmers to Families Food Box Program is supplying many people in need, helping ensure U.S.-grown produce is consumed rather than wasted, and is providing “somewhat of an alternative market” as the foodservice sector remains at least partly shut down.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue Jan. 4 announced USDA will buy an additional $1.5 billion of food for nationwide distribution through the food-box program. USDA, which has distributed more than 132 million boxes since the pandemic began, will solicit 240 organizations that previously received Basic Ordering Agreements.

“The need remains out there with food-insecure Americans, so having additional resources going into that is a positive,” Quarles said.

Yielding said SNAP enhancements will affect agriculture differently than USDA food purchases.

“While the increase in SNAP benefits is important at this time, this enables recipients to purchase non-U.S.-grown products, unlike the Food Box program that only has U.S-grown products,” he said.

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