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COVID-19 Food-Related Policy Tracking: Highlighting State Approaches

This blog post was written by Bridgette Slater with contributions by Ali Schklair, Amanda Dell, Emily Yslas, MJ McDonald, and Regan Plekenpol. All are FLPC summer interns.


In early June, FLPC launched the State Policies for Feeding Vulnerable Populations Tool, which tracks state policies issued in response to COVID-19 that facilitate food delivery, food at centralized pick-up locations, and funding to support emergency feeding programs. Most of these policies are related to emergency feeding programs, but we also noted policies related to farmworker safety, given their importance to the food supply system. This blog post highlights a selection of notable policies from different states in the hopes that researchers, policy advocates, and other stakeholders might find them useful when considering potential policies to increase food access in their own state.

Feeding Program Policies

California

On April 24, 2020, California Governor Gavin Newsom announced the launch of California’s “Great Plates Delivered” program, which delivers three meals per day to older adults and stimulates the local economy by mobilizing restaurants to provide these meals. The program costs, shared across federal, state, and local governments, amount to $66 per person each day. As of July 2020, an estimated 643 restaurants have prepared nearly 3 million meals and served about 34,388 Californians statewide through the Great Plates Delivered program. Its popularity has led Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to authorize extension of the temporary food program several times over the last three months, with the current end date tentatively scheduled for August 9, 2020 as of time of publication.

Although the Great Plates Delivered program has made huge strides for the local economy by keeping restaurants open and for vulnerable residents by delivering food to their doorstep, its eligibility criteria has prevented older adults with the greatest financial need from reaping the benefits of the program. In order to be eligible, participants must earn more than 200% of the federal poverty level, which means that older adults earning less than approximately $25,000 annually are unable to access this innovative program. In response to criticism about this lower bound restriction, California’s state officials have stated that the state is complying with FEMA’s mandate that program funds cannot go towards those already benefitting from other government programs.

Massachusetts

In Massachusetts, the Administration of Governor Charlie Baker and Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito has relied upon the state’s Food Security Task Force, a public-private partnership convened by the Massachusetts COVID-19 Command Center in response to increased demands for food assistance, to identify urgent areas of need and recommend action items. The task force’s primary objectives include maximizing access to nutrition programs, centralizing coordination of resources, and researching potential creative partnerships.

Alongside the Food Security Task Force’s efforts to research and craft a comprehensive plan, the Baker-Polito Administration also allocated $56 million in funding for the following programs: launch of a $36 million COVID-19 Food Security Infrastructure Grant Program, $5 million increase for the Healthy Incentives Program, $12 million for the provision of 25,000 family food boxes per week, and $3 million in immediate relief funding for food banks. These four initiatives are designed to increase access to emergency feeding sites, support food system businesses, and stabilize supply chain disruptions. While two of the four initiatives–increased food bank funding and statewide distribution of family food boxes–are familiar emergency feeding responses, the other two programs are either new or supplement an existing program. The COVID-19 Food Security Infrastructure Grant Program has provided individuals and families with increased access to food and maintained a special focus on supporting farms, fisheries, and local food producers. The increased funding for Healthy Incentives Program (HIP), which helps SNAP recipients purchase fruits and vegetables, has allowed Massachusetts to meet heightened demand for local produce and improve access to HIP retailers, such as farmers markets and mobile markets.

Vermont

When COVID-19 shut down the operations of dairy farmers’ typical customers, namely schools and restaurants, industry stakeholders launched a collaborative initiative that purchases farmers’ raw milk, processes it into containers of milk, yogurt cups, and butter, and gives it to the Vermont Foodbank. The collaboration, which is coordinated by the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets (VAAFM), spans cooperatives, processors, and nonprofits in addition to the Vermont Foodbank. The program costs are covered through grants and donations. The Vermont Community Foundation provided a $60,000 grant to purchase the milk, which dairy producers then processed into 42,000 cups of yogurt, 11,500 gallons of 2% milk, and 440 pounds of butter that was all donated to the Vermont Foodbank. Since the dairy industry accounts for about 70% of Vermont’s agricultural sales, saving this milk and turning it into sellable products has been a huge win for both struggling farmers and hungry families. Moreover, Vermont’s responsiveness helped mitigate the precarious situation that unfolded across the country when a glut in supply and plummeting milk prices forced many dairy farmers to dump the large quantities of perishable product they were left holding.

Agricultural Worker Safety Policies

Oregon

In the midst of many states rolling out policies focused on emergency feeding efforts, Oregon took a different route. It emerged as an example of a state that aimed to intervene at some of the early stages of the food supply chain with the goal of mitigating disruptions and protecting vulnerable food system workers. When the pandemic threatened Oregon’s summer harvests, Governor Kate Brown announced the Food Security and Farmworker Safety Program, which is a $30 million investment in protection measures for Oregon’s agricultural sector.

Of the program’s $30 million total, $14 million was allocated towards mitigation of COVID-19 outbreaks by providing Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for farmworkers, a Quarantine Fund to pay expenses for sick workers, and preventative safety education funds for community-based organizations serving migrant seasonal farmworkers. The remaining $16 million went towards agricultural workforce housing modifications, field sanitation, and bringing employer-provided transportation into compliance with social distancing requirements. To promote accessibility, Oregon provided a single application for all of the program’s resources and made it available online in Spanish and English. Oregon’s investment in essential workers was an innovative approach to targeting supply chain disruptions and ensuring that vulnerable communities were protected.

Michigan

To address agricultural worker safety during the pandemic, Governor Gretchen Whitmer issued an executive order designed to increase telehealth options and healthcare access for migrant agricultural workers living in congregate housing. Additionally, under the order, owners and operators of licensed employer-provided migrant housing must follow strict social distancing measures, such as separating beds at least 6 feet apart, providing isolation housing for infected residents, ensuring regular ventilation of rooms, and delivering food to isolated residents.

Prior to the Governor’s executive order, multiple outbreaks occurred across Michigan farms as owners shirked their responsibility to keep their employees safe and took no precautions to protect migrant agricultural workers in congregate housing. However, even with this executive order in place, compliance by farm owners is not guaranteed unless state officials diligently enforce it. FLPC is encouraged by Michigan’s important first step to protect agricultural workers and hopes that Michigan is taking the necessary subsequent steps to ensure these workers are actually protected under the order.

Visit our dynamic policy tracker, the State Policies for Feeding Vulnerable Populations Tool, to learn more about the actions that states have taken to combat food insecurity during the pandemic. This tool is intended as a resource for tracking best practices, identifying shortfalls, and helping direct practitioners to programs and funding. The policy tracker is a living document and we include a link at the top of the spreadsheet inviting any advocates, researchers, or others to contribute to this resource.