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A Message from Tom Stenzel on Coronavirus/COVID-19

Apr 18, 2020

April 18, 2020; 2:15 pm EDT/11:15 am PDT

Dear produce industry members,

If you’ve read your morning newspapers, you may have heard the news that USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue announced last night $2.7 billion in financial support targeted to the fruit and vegetable sector as part of an effort to mitigate the COVID-19 pandemic’s effect on U.S. agriculture. This is the first allocation of funds directly to agriculture from the CARES Act passed by Congress.

As you know, United Fresh and our allied partners have been working aggressively since the moment the foodservice channel was shut down to drive financial relief first through Congress, and now through USDA. Last night’s commitment from Secretary Perdue marks an important first step, but certainly not sufficient to meet the true devastation in our industry.

USDA’s commitment to fruits and vegetables comes in two forms:

  • Looking back, $2.1 billion in payments will be made to growers and grower-shippers of fresh produce for demonstrated losses caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.  While USDA is limited to providing direct support to farmers, our intent is to make sure that any payments received at the grower level relieve the debts of their PACA-licensed buyers.
  • Looking forward, USDA will implement a new streamlined “Buy Fresh” program for fresh fruits and vegetables. USDA committed to purchase at least $100 million per month for the next six months from foodservice distributors and pay companies to package produce in consumer bags or boxes and deliver to food banks, curb-side school pick-up sites, and other non-profit institutions.

As I reflect on these commitments, I’m grateful to USDA and Members of Congress for supporting our industry. The new $100 million per month purchase program is great, and will be a major boost for both growers and distributors in the days ahead.

But we have to recognize that the payment program does not reach the level needed for many in our industry to survive. Because USDA had received food industry requests for over $40 billion, they placed a maximum of $250,000 in payment to any one individual or entity. You and I both know that comes nowhere close to the actual damage in our sector. The $250,000 limit is the same across all of agriculture – livestock, dairy, other crops and fruits and vegetables, so we were not treated differently from our brethren. But the impact of that limit is drastically different for our high-value crops. As an example, berries can cost more than $10,000 per acre to grow, compared with about $650 an acre to grow corn or soybeans. And that doesn’t include packing, marketing and distribution costs.

So, while appreciative, we’re once again engaging Congress to allocate more resources in a fourth COVID-19 funding program to help keep the overall economy and the fruit and vegetable industry alive.

Both of these new funding programs will take some time to put in place. We will be working closely with USDA to ensure that these programs move quickly and efficiently to meet as many of your needs as possible. And, we will share details about how you can access both the payment program and future produce purchases as soon as possible.

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