The USDA Is Prioritizing Corporations Over Poor People During a Pandemic

A butcher chops up beef at Jones Meat & Food Services in Rigby, Idaho, May 2020. Thousands of meat and poultry workers in the United States have contracted the coronavirus in processing plants.

This column is the second in a three-part series examining the consequences of President Donald Trump’s appointment of Sonny Perdue as secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The first column in the series discussed Secretary Perdue’s attacks on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), both before the pandemic and after it began, amid a worsening hunger crisis. This second column explores the corporate-friendly policies and stakeholders Perdue prioritized during the pandemic over struggling low-income constituents. The third installment in the series will explore the future of programs such as SNAP under Secretary Perdue. 

U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Sonny Perdue is tasked with reducing hunger in America. Yet as the first entry in this series on the USDA’s COVID-19 response has shown, these efforts have not succeeded under Perdue’s leadership due to the agency’s actions both before the public health crisis began and during the ensuing months.

The key reason for this failure is the secretary’s refusal to maximize the potential of the Food and Nutrition Service’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)—the nation’s most effective tool to alleviate hunger, serving 38 million people in 2019 alone. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit and the country entered an unprecedented economic crisis, the USDA did not adjust its long-standing combative posture toward SNAP to meet accelerating food insecurity rates. Instead, Secretary Perdue and his agency chose to focus their attention and finite resources on pursuing corporate-friendly policies. At the same time, the secretary continued to block access to critical anti-poverty programs, leaving vulnerable workers and low-income people to fend for themselves amid a worsening national hunger crisis and economic recession.

Who pays when the USDA prioritizes profits instead of people?

As both the pandemic and hunger crisis worsened in March and April, concerns over disruptions to the U.S. food supply grew as well. The meatpacking industry—due to widespread COVID-19 outbreaks among its workforce—saw more than 30 processing plants close, a considerable number for an industry dominated by mass production plants. One major processor, Smithfield Foods, warned in a letter that the country was “perilously close to the edge in terms of our meat supply,” suggesting that a consequence of the disrupted supply chain would be meat disappearing from grocery stores. Company officials stated that it would resume operations and help prevent that shortage “once further direction is received from local, state and federal officials.” The industry, however, had not been following contemporaneous directions from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Reporting from the Washington Post found that three of the five major meat producers, including Smithfield Foods, failed to quickly provide and mandate personal protective equipment (PPE) to their workers. By April 27, the CDC reported that nearly 5,000 meatpacking workers had contracted the disease and 20 had died.

Moreover, research from the Center for Economic and Policy Research finds that this front-line meatpacking workforce has a higher concentration of people of color than the country it feeds: 44 percent of workers are Hispanic, and 25 percent are Black. Almost half of these workers also live in low-income families, defined as earning less than $52,400 for a family of four in 2020. They represent populations disproportionately devastated by the pandemic, with Black and Latinx Americans dying at higher rates than their white counterparts.

Even as workers fell ill and died, industry executives and their trade group, the North American Meat Institute (NAMI), lobbied Secretary Perdue to pave the way for reopening plants, according to emails from Public Citizen and American Oversight Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. Though many plants had voluntarily closed, they had done so reluctantly after facing pressure from elected officials and protestors.

On April 28, President Donald Trump relieved that pressure. With the signing of an executive order declaring meat processing “critical infrastructure” to prevent food supply chain disruption, the administration provided industry executives with the leverage needed to begin reopening. Emails uncovered by a FOIA request show that the executive order’s final language is similar to language suggested in a draft shared by NAMI lobbyists with the USDA one week before the order was signed. The emails revealed that the agency worked closely with NAMI to successfully incorporate the industry’s goals into administration policy.

In contrast, the concerns of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW)—which represents more than 250,000 meatpacking workers—were not given the same priority. When the union shared five key health and safety recommendations with Secretary Perdue to protect their members, none of their life-saving priorities were included in the president’s executive order.

Weeks later, as “legitimately scared” and unprotected workers resumed processing, the New York Times found that the meat shortage they were being imperiled to prevent was not nearly as dire as industry executives had suggested. While the USDA failed to listen to workers demanding protections, leaving tens of thousands of people vulnerable to COVID-19, Secretary Perdue’s agency lobbied on behalf of industry groups that publicly fear-mongered about a meat shortage—even as the companies exported a record 129,000 tons of allegedly scarce pork to China that same month.

While the USDA strategized and coordinated with corporate lobbyists, poor people went hungry

At the same time that Secretary Perdue was meeting with industry lobbyists, many of the most vulnerable people in the United States were experiencing a growing hunger crisis made worse by the pandemic and the associated economic upheaval. As examined in the previous column, the current hunger crisis predates both COVID-19 and Secretary Perdue, with institutions such as food banks long having functioned as a supplement to inadequate policy interventions. These nonprofit, community-centered organizations rely heavily on a volunteer-based workforce and, like the rest of the world, have had to adjust to this new reality.

In the weeks after the economy shut down, newly organized drive-thru lines for food banks stretched for miles as demand for food assistance skyrocketed, with some people waiting hours in line only to leave empty-handed. Feeding America, the nation’s largest network of food banks, reported that 98 percent of their food banks saw an increase in demand from the year before, with an average increase of 59 percent.

The ubiquitous images of long lines for assistance across the country underscore that, although they provide critically important services, food banks are not equipped to be the first line of defense against hunger. According to Feeding America, for every meal provided by a food bank, SNAP provides nine. When the pandemic-driven recession began, millions of individuals turned to SNAP, with the program seeing more than 6 million additional cases by July. Moreover, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that in an economic downturn, every dollar in additional SNAP funding puts as much as $1.80 back into the U.S. economy. Extra SNAP benefits do not just feed hungry people but also give low-income people more resources to spend in their local communities, which is a sorely needed source of stability in an economy desperately trying to recover.

Despite the drastic lengths to which individuals have gone to feed their families and the number of overwhelmed food banks struggling to keep up with rising demand, Secretary Perdue continues to shun the built-in and scalable infrastructure of SNAP, instead fixating on business-centered actions to solve a public policy crisis.

Perdue spurned SNAP and turned to unproven business handouts to help families

One such business-centered idea was a revamp of 2018’s Harvest Box program, one of the policies proposed by Secretary Perdue’s USDA and rejected by a Republican Congress during Farm Bill negotiations in 2018. Secretary Perdue’s idea proposed that in place of cash benefits to purchase groceries, SNAP recipients would receive a preselected collection of processed foods. The idea was panned by hunger experts, advocates, and lawmakers as wasteful and inefficient and described as a “humiliation ritual” for nutrition assistance recipients.

In April, Secretary Perdue unveiled a modestly improved version of the program, in which he hoped to solve two problems at once. With food supply chains disrupted by the pandemic,  millions of pounds of perishable food were left to rot in fields while food bank lines stretched for miles. In response, the USDA announced the “Farmers to Families Program”—exercising authority granted to the agency under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act—which dedicated an initial $3 billion to purchase excess stores of crops and source them directly to overwhelmed food banks, with the first round of shipments to be sent out by May 15.

As of October 17, the program had invoiced just 106.6 million meals over the previous seven months, well short of the 8 billion meals shortage projected over the next year. This inadequacy is partly because the program is not administered by the Food and Nutrition Service, which is tasked with reducing hunger, but by the Agricultural Marketing Service, a USDA marketing agency. The decision is a revealing one: Despite a worsening hunger crisis, the USDA preferred to administer the new program under a department focused on marketing food rather than effectively distributing it.

Accordingly, the program has had many problems, with distribution failures particularly harming food-insecure individuals. Some food banks received little to no food through the program, while others received multiple truckloads per day. In a July House Agriculture Committee hearing on the subject, Chairwoman Marcia Fudge (D-OH) questioned why the USDA awarded multimillion dollar contracts to unlicensed servicers with limited or no experience in food distribution. Anticipating these issues, Feeding America organized more than 200 food banks and seven national distributors to prepare for the program’s implementation, but none of these licensed distributors received contracts from the agency. The committee requested explanations about how the USDA tracked which food banks received resources. Yet in the July hearing, their requests, like the UFCW safety recommendations, were ignored.

Innovations to help low-income SNAP recipients remain corporate driven

The Farmers to Families program is not the only example of how poor people have continued to suffer under Secretary Perdue’s corporate-friendly governance of the USDA—even through programs ostensibly meant to help low-income families. With the pandemic heightening the health risks of errands such as grocery shopping, the USDA expanded an Obama-era pilot program allowing SNAP benefits to apply to online grocery purchases.

Usage of the new program increased to 750,000 SNAP households by June, up from only 35,000 households in March. But the quick expansion meant that corporate behemoths such as Amazon and Walmart, which had the requisite infrastructure already in place, were the only two retailers who qualified in 41 of the 47 approved states. While SNAP beneficiaries were able to use their benefits through these sites, the USDA failed to protect them from the corporations’ exploitative data-collecting tactics.

According to a report from the Center for Digital Democracy, the USDA’s privacy protection requirements for participating retailers were “weak and ineffective,” leaving SNAP recipients susceptible to “an often manipulative and nontransparent online grocery marketplace” from retailers including both Amazon and Walmart. By using “highly sensitive geolocation data,” retailers are able to track not only how SNAP recipients shop, but also how they live—where they go, how long they stay, what they buy, and what they do not.

As described in the report, “The ubiquity of the surveillance and the merging of the online and physical worlds makes these practices nearly inescapable.” The data collected are so total—and the USDA’s privacy protections so weak—that Amazon, Walmart, and other corporate retailers have essentially created a two-tiered marketplace, asymmetrically serving two groups of consumers at once. The retailers have one market for normal customers—in this case, SNAP users—purchasing groceries during a pandemic. The second market is for “partners, affiliates, and other third parties” purchasing all-encompassing data of SNAP users to guide advertising schemes. The report explains that these data practices “are likely to have a disproportionate impact on SNAP participants, which include low-income communities, communities of color, [people with disabilities], and families living in rural areas.”

Though big data firms did not invent this form of inequity, they are perpetuating it. Data mined from SNAP recipients, who disproportionately live in segregated communities shaped by allegedly “race-neutral” policies such as redlining, are so thorough that the inequity in America’s built environment is replicated online. As the new online SNAP purchasing program continues to expand, this data collection—and the weak protections that should prevent it—gives racial inequity a second life through a data-based infrastructure that is increasingly shaping the economy and undergirding corporations’ booming profits.

On July 16, the Center for Digital Democracy urged the USDA to address these issues on behalf of the expanding program’s present and future users. As has become a trend when challenged on his policies affecting low-income and poor people, Secretary Perdue did not respond.

Conclusion

The first part of this series examined in detail the focus of Secretary Perdue’s nutrition policies—namely, his desire to cut SNAP benefits by constructing administrative obstacles between eligible recipients and the benefits they need to survive. When the time came to create administrative systems that work on behalf of poor people instead of against them, the secretary failed.

Instead of prioritizing his agency’s response to a worsening hunger crisis amid the coronavirus pandemic, Secretary Perdue focused his attention on entrenching corporate power. By refusing to maximize SNAP—a program which has proven time and again its ability to directly alleviate suffering and stimulate the economy during economic recessions—the secretary has plainly failed to fulfill his constitutional responsibility: to reduce hunger.

David Ballard is the campaigns and communications manager for the Poverty to Prosperity Program at the Center for American Progress.