Trump administration faces pressure to buy food for the needy, avoid waste

CHICAGO (Reuters) - The Trump administration is facing mounting pressure to buy more meat, dairy and produce for food banks as farmers destroy agricultural goods due to reduced restaurant demand during the coronavirus outbreak.

U.S. President Donald Trump listens during a meeting with healthcare executives in the Cabinet Room at the White House in Washington, U.S., April 14, 2020. REUTERS/Leah Millis

The National Pork Producers Council, which represents U.S. hog farmers, on Tuesday called on the U.S. Department of Agriculture to purchase more than $1 billion in pork. The agency should buy products like hams and bacon that are packaged for restaurants and use it to supplement food bank programs facing increased demand due to rising unemployment, according to the industry group.

About 16.8 million people filed for U.S. unemployment benefits in the last three weeks as the country shut down to stop the spread of the new coronavirus.

Supplies of meat, cheese and vegetables have backed up and dairy farmers have been dumping milk as restaurant dining rooms have closed. Rabobank estimates overall North American meat demand is down some 30% in the past month.

Increased food purchases by USDA can “help ensure that the production that no longer has a foodservice market can be made available to help our nation’s food banks,” said Representative Collin Peterson, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee.

Peterson, in a letter on Tuesday, urged USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue to use $9.5 billion in funding through the CARES Act relief bill, as well as the Commodity Credit Corporation funding authority, to ease food demand disruptions from the outbreak.

Perdue said on Twitter last week USDA is developing a program that will include direct payments to farmers and “procurement methods to help solidify the supply chain from producers to consumers.” The agency said on Tuesday that details will be released soon.

Hog farmers will euthanize dramatically more pigs without immediate federal aid, according to A.V. Roth, president of the pork council. It estimates producers will lose about $5 billion this year or $37 per hog.

Feeding America, which says it is the largest U.S. hunger-relief organization, and the American Farm Bureau Federation said in a letter last week that USDA should implement a voucher program that would allow farmers and food banks to work directly with one another.

“We are seeing literally tons of agricultural goods being discarded because of the shutdown of so much of the economy,” the letter said. “Paradoxically, we are seeing a simultaneous surge in demand at a moment when many farmers are being told there is an oversupply of their product.”

Reporting by Tom Polansek; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Cynthia Osterman