The U.S. Department of Agriculture is ensuring the safety and timely delivery of the U.S. food supply while protecting the health of USDA employees during this COVID-19 national emergency.
Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue recorded the following video message reassuring the American people that the U.S. supply chain remains strong. He thanked people on the front lines of the food supply -- those stocking the shelves of local grocery stores, truck drivers keeping supply networks open and functioning, foodservice workers in kitchens across the country preparing products at markets, school lunch workers keeping America’s families and children fed during closures and USDA’s food safety inspectors ensuring that the food we eat is safe, healthy and nutritious.
While USDA has moved to an enhanced telework posture during the coronavirus national emergency, services to the American people continue. Here is a brief overview of some of those services that continue to be offered:
For the Food Safety & Inspection Service (FSIS), all meat, poultry and processed egg inspection services continue as normal. Planning for absenteeism is a part of normal FSIS operations, and as such, FSIS is closely monitoring and tracking employee absenteeism to plan for and minimize impacts to operations. FSIS is also working to prioritize inspection at establishments based on local conditions and resources available.
APHIS and AMS
The Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) and the Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) continue to provide critical inspections and grading services. APHIS and AMS are ensuring the health and safety of USDA employees while still providing the timely delivery of the services to maintain the movement of America’s food supply moving from farms to forks. APHIS and AMS said they are prepared to remedy any possible disruptions in their services.
Commodity markets can be assured that USDA will keep America’s food supply safe as well as abundant during this national emergency. AMS will continue to report commodity prices through its market news service. Monday, USDA undersecretary for marketing and regulatory programs Greg Ibach and USDA deputy undersecretary for food safety Dr. Mindy Brashears issued a letter to stakeholders reassuring them that FSIS and AMS are rising to meet the challenges associated with COVID-19.
Food & Nutrition Service
Perdue announced a collaboration with the Baylor Collaborative on Hunger & Poverty, McLane Global, PepsiCo and others to deliver nearly 1 million meals per week to students in a limited number of rural schools that have closed due to COVID-19. These boxes will contain five days worth of shelf-stable, nutritious, individually packaged foods that meet USDA’s summer food requirements. The use of this innovative delivery system will ensure that rural children receive nutritious food while limiting exposure to COVID-19.
Last week, Perdue announced proactive flexibilities to allow meal service during school closures to minimize potential exposure to coronavirus. During an unexpected school closure, schools can leverage their participation in one of USDA’s meal programs to provide meals at no cost to students. Under normal circumstances, those meals must be served in a group setting. However, in a public health emergency, the law gives USDA the authority to waive the group setting meal requirement, which is vital during a social distancing situation.
USDA is using all available program flexibilities and contingencies to serve program participants across its 15 nutrition programs. The agency already has begun to issue waivers to ease program operations and protect the health of participants. As of Tuesday, USDA has been asked to waive congregate feeding requirements in all 50 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico; USDA has granted those requests.
The Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS) has plans and workplace flexibilities in place to ensure that it can continue to deliver on its mission of creating global trade opportunities for the producers and exporters of American farm and food products. These efforts include continued monitoring and reporting on U.S. agricultural exports, global agricultural trade and trade policy priorities such as implementation of the U.S.-China Phase One Economic & Trade Agreement.
Farm Production and Conservation (FPAC)
USDA Service Centers, which include offices of both the Farm Service Agency (FSA) and the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), are located throughout the country. The customers are farmers and ranchers who are adaptable and innovative, and the staff provide service to every county nationwide. If an outbreak comes to certain areas, FSA and NRCS will disperse the customer service and mission delivery tasks needed to telework as well as to other areas as we route phones, post and electronic communications to staff able to complete critical functions.
The FPAC Business Center will address the majority of essential operations and critical functions through increased use of telework.
Since the Risk Management Agency’s (RMA) partners in the crop insurance delivery system are insurance companies and their agents and adjustors, it depends on them as the customer-facing service on behalf of RMA. Should an outbreak occur locally, the approved insurance providers (AIPs) and their agents and adjustors would be able to accomplish most tasks through telephone and email. With regard to payment of escrow to the AIPs, this process happens in RMA’s Kansas City office. Should that office be affected, most of the work will be done via telework. USDA also said it has capabilities to shift functions to the other regional offices as well to perform those tasks.
Research and extension
The National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) is making every effort to produce and deliver official federal agriculture statistics on schedule. It said it will evaluate data collection and agency operations for the production of each NASS report as COVID-19 conditions change. If NASS is able to collect enough data and conditions are such that estimates can be established and released, it will publish reports. If there are changes in the publication schedule, notification will be made by a notice distributed to the news media and posted at nass.usda.gov.
“We ask farmers and ranchers who have received a survey to please respond online. It’s now more important than ever to respond promptly online so that we can deliver the statistics that agriculture counts on, without having to follow up,” USDA said.
The URL is on every questionnaire: agcounts.usda.gov. To start, use the survey code on the questionnaire.
The Economic Research Service (ERS) is fully prepared to deliver on our regular mission activities and to support departmental needs for analysis. Nearly 100% of staff are telework ready, and ERS is operating in a 100% cloud computing environment, which facilitates full functionality with remote access.
Agricultural Research Service continues its mission-critical work without interruption. USDA said it is continuing to support its stakeholders, including action and regulatory agencies. “We will begin planning for new research on the impact of COVID-19 on food safety and animals,” USDA said.
For more information from USDA, visit www.usda.gov/coronavirus.