(Bloomberg) -- Senate Democrats are seeking $8 billion in the next coronavirus relief package to strengthen the food supply chain and provide more protective gear for food processing and farm workers.
“This is to stop the logjam in the supply system and effectively get desperately needed food to families,” said Debbie Stabenow, the top-ranking Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee, who plans to announce legislation Wednesday to establish the aid program.
Stabenow said she has had “good discussions” with Republicans on the proposals and hopes to incorporate the measure in whatever relief package emerges after negotiations between the House and Senate. The proposal is co-sponsored by Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer and all Democrats on the Agriculture Committee, she said.
“I view this as a marker bill, a proposal to get into discussion right now,” Stabenow said in an interview.
House Democrats have passed a $3 trillion economic stimulus bill that has been rejected by Republicans and the Trump administration. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said the Senate will draw up its own proposal once it becomes clear what additional measures may be needed.
The Democrats’ plan would include $5.5 billion in grants, loans and loan guarantees to assist small- and medium-sized food processors in retooling for the pandemic -- including converting lines used for packaging food for institutional use to the consumer retail market. The assistance also would cover protective gear and virus testing for farm and food processing workers.
“We have two food chains basically, one for retail and consumers, and another for bulk purchasers, food service and restaurants,” Stabenow said. “We need to have a more flexible food processing chain that can adapt in crises like this one.”
The proposal also calls for $1 billion in grants to food banks and other non-profit feeding programs to expand capacity. The money could be used to pay for additional cold storage and refrigeration equipment, transportation, protective gear and rental costs.
An additional $1.5 billion would be earmarked for “food purchase partnerships” to buy surplus farm products for feeding programs. It would expand commodity purchases beyond the Trump administration’s current food box program.
Significant parts of the commodity funding would be directed to state agricultural departments, to allow purchases of local farm surpluses. Stabenow cited her home state of Michigan, saying the program would provide flexibility to target purchases later in the year, as the state’s fruit and vegetable crops are harvested.
The last coronavirus relief package that passed Congress included $3 billion to fund federal government purchases of meat, dairy products and fruits and vegetables.
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