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Your Guide to the Policy Response to COVID-19

Insights into government priorities so far and to come

JBF Impact Team

April 30, 2020

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If you’ve followed our emails, attended our webinars, or joined some of our in-person chef gathering in 2018 and 2019, you might be familiar with the firm NVG. NVG is a dynamic government relations firm specializing in public policy, advocacy, strategic advice, and outreach. We’ve been fortunate enough to work the amazing team there over the years, and relay their knowledge of D.C. activity to you.

With substantial shifts in policy priorities due to the pandemic, and legislators spread across the country, NVG has prepared a policy briefing about what is currently happening on the Capitol, and which issues that are important to you will likely see movement in the next few weeks.

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Since early March 2020, Congress and the White House have been solely focused on responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. Below is a retrospective on federal action to date and some thoughts about how Congress and the Administration will move forward on issues related to financial support for restaurants and programs that help the food-insecure.

Economic Relief Packages Signed into Law

Congress has passed four stimulus packages since early March. The focus of these bills has been to provide emergency relief to address the health and economic fallout across the country and strengthen existing safety net programs to support our most vulnerable populations. These measures constitute the largest federal response to a health and economic crisis in the United States to date—and more actions are to come.  

Phase I: Coronavirus Preparedness and Response Supplemental Appropriations Act

  • Date signed into law: March 6
  • Amount: $8.3 billion
  • Includes funds for medicare and telehealth, vaccine research and development, public health funding, and support to state and local agencies.

Phase II: Families and Workers Coronavirus Response Act

  • Date signed into law: March 18
  • Amount $3.4 billion
  • Includes emergency grants for unemployment, expands family and medical leave, and funds for food and medical assistance.

Phase III: CARES Act

  • Date signed into law: March 27
  • Amount: $2 trillion
  • Includes direct payment relief checks, funds for the Small Business Administration (SBA) Economic Injury Disaster Loan program (EIDL), Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), direct aid to states, and supplemental funding for hospitals.

Phase 3.5: The Paycheck Protection Program and Health Care Enhancement Act

  • Date signed into law: April 24
  • Amount: $484 billion
  • Includes additional funds for the SBA’s EIDL and PPP programs, other grant and loan programs, and funds for hospitals and testing.

The U.S. Senate is set to return on May 4, while the House has postponed their return until further notice. Over the next several weeks the focus will be the next coronavirus relief package, which is being called CARES II. There is expected to be less bipartisanship and more contentious debates about what policies get considered.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) has already started working with her caucus to develop the priorities of the “CARES II” package. Some of the democratic priorities that have been made public include:

  • Pandemic premium pay for frontline workers
  • Emergency health and safety regulations
  • Expanded family and medical leave

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, on the other hand, has not committed to the next package and has indicated that he wants to decrease the pace and volume of spending. More recent reporting has him supporting additional state support. 

Economic Relief for the Restaurant Industry

Issues related to the restaurant industry and the entire food system continue to be highlighted by chefs, advocates and the press, but to date, there has been limited policy response from Congress and the Administration.

The Independent Restaurant Coalition (IRC) was formed to support federal policy advocacy on behalf of local restaurants affected by COVID-19. The IRC is focused on advocating for the small business community within the larger food industry. The federal policies the IRC are advocating for have some overlap with the NRA but are targeted for the independent restaurant community.

The IRC is calling on Congress for a $120 billion Independent Restaurant Stabilization Fund to help restaurants re-open and stay open. IRC outlines that the fund should exclude publicly traded restaurants, exclude large chain restaurants or franchises, and prioritize underrepresented communities.

The National Restaurant Association (NRA) is calling for a similar fund. The two requests are generally aligned, but the IRC includes the guardrails as outlined above to ensure that the fund prioritizes independent restaurants. These points are not included in the NRA calls.

Additionally, both the IRC and NRA are asking for technical fixes to the SBA PPP program including allowing restaurants to select their loan period, revise loan forgiveness requirements, and restore the 10-year loan term written in the CARES Act.

Helping to Feed the Most Insecure

Before the coronavirus upended lives and livelihoods, 37 million low-income Americans were already facing food insecurity, populations that were disproportionately people of color. Now, as students who relied on school lunch programs are homebound, the elderly are shut in, and 17 million Americans have joined the ranks of the unemployed, access to food has become increasingly precarious.

Below are a variety of proposals being put forth to be considered in CARES II, as well as new programming responding to the crisis—some could also help support restaurants that have temporarily become emergency feeding centers.  

Supplemental Nutrition Assistant Program (SNAP) Expansion

States across the nation are moving to expedite snap online purchasing and expand the prepared foods purchasing. SNAP Online Purchasing initially began April 2019 in New York, followed by Washington state in January 2020.  Recently, Arizona, District of Columbia, Idaho, Kentucky, Missouri, North Carolina, Texas, Vermont and West Virginia were approved to move forward. These states expect to implement online purchasing in April/May 2020.

Community Meals Fund

The Community Meals Fund (H.R. 6384) authored by Rep. Nydia M. Velázquez (D-NY) would establish a new program to help meet staffing shortages at anti-hunger nonprofit organizations in New York City and throughout the nation. Under the bill, nonprofits could qualify for grants of $500,000 to partner with small and mid-sized restaurants for the preparation and distribution of food to vulnerable populations.

Food Supply Chain Disruption

The nation’s food system and agriculture supply chains have been upended by COVID-19. Significant impacts are being felt across the food and agriculture sector including reduction in operation of restaurants, farmers markets, and other food processing facilities.

Farmers are having to destroy perishable foods or let them rot in the fields because the cost to harvest is too expensive. There is also a major concern that the food supply chain could be disrupted because of workers in the processing plants and in the fields testing positive for COVID-19. 

In late April 2020, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) announced a number of  programs  in response to COVID-19 affects on the food system: The Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP). CFAP includes:

  • The Rapid Response to Novel Coronavirus Impacts Across Food and Agricultural Systems is designed to “rapidly enhance and fill knowledge and information gaps, strengthen and support critical cross-cutting issues to protect the food and agriculture supply chain.”
  • The Food Box program is seeking to partner with local and regional distributors—whose workforce has been significantly impacted by the closure of restaurants, hotels, schools and other food service entities—to procure and provide boxes of fresh produce, dairy, and meat products to food banks and other non-profits serving Americans in need.
  • Direct Aid to Farmers: for the direct aid portion of CFAP, USDA plans to distribute payments to farmers based on actual losses where prices, markets, and supply chains have been impacted by COVID-19. Initial reports indicate that USDA plans to allocate funding by commodity—including livestock, dairy, row crops, and “other crops.” While it seems most producers will be eligible for funding, it is unclear how funding will be divided and how diversified producers and farmers selling into local and regional markets will be able to apply for aid.
Coalitions at Work

A number of organizations and coalitions are leading efforts to advocate for restaurants, food security, nutrition, and sustainability issues. They are as follows:

Conclusion

The policy provisions outlined here are areas where the James Beard Foundation’s community of chef-advocates can make a difference in support of economic relief for restaurants, feeding the most vulnerable among us and keeping our food system healthy.

While it may be unclear as to when the House and Senate will be together in Washington, D.C. to finalize the next package, it is very clear that grassroots and direct advocacy efforts by the chef and food community needs to be consistent and organized.

If solutions aren’t presented at this time to members of Congress—particularly the Agriculture, Small Business and Ways and Means committees—they are unlikely to be part of the discussion when Congress is fully back in session and voting on the next wave of responses to COVID-19.

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We're looking for culinary leaders across the country who are interested in engaging with policy makers at the state and local level to advocate for financial and other assistance during and following the COVID-19 pandemic. Sign up here.

Photo: Luka Banda/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images