The U.S. Department of Agriculture last Friday night announced the $19 billion Coronavirus Food Assistance Program. Funded through the CARES Act, it is designed to support food producers and assistance providers in the same way its parent package was aimed more generally at individuals, small business and major industries.

Maine’s food producers, particularly its small and medium-sized producers, should be aware that the program is available. The USDA should make sure it gets to them.

Smaller producers have reason to worry. The CARES Act, so desperately and quickly needed by the workers and businesses who saw their source of income dry up overnight when activity was shut down, was by design huge and hastily put together. As a result, a lot of people and businesses were left on the margins, either because their particular situation didn’t qualify for aid or they found it difficult to navigate the process to get it. It’s not crazy to think the same thing would happen in agriculture.

What’s more, U.S. agriculture has always favored large producers, who for decades have gotten the vast majority of government subsidies.

Things have not changed with the Trump administration. While the administration’s trade war with China was hurting small agriculture operations, it was the biggest farms that got most of the aid.

And last fall, USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue said large-scale farming was the future. “In America, the big get bigger and the small go out,” he told an audience in Wisconsin. Replied the board president of the National Family Farm Coalition, “His message to (smaller farms) was basically, stop whining, your demise is inevitable.”

The program is necessary. It will, the USDA said, send $16 billion in direct aid to producers to offset the losses they suffered when prices and supply chains were affected by the pandemic and accompanying shutdown.

The remaining $3 billion will be used to purchase food for food banks and faith-based groups and nonprofit organizations that provide food assistance. The food will be purchased through local and regional distributors who usually supply restaurants, hotels and institutions, and who have been hit hard by the shutdown.

Food assistance providers receive a lot of their donations from grocery stores that are now struggling to keep their shelves stocked, just as demand for assistance is skyrocketing. Good Shepherd Food Bank, Maine’s largest food assistance organization, reported that they typically spend $1.5 million for food purchases in a year; in a recent 10-day period, however, the organization spent $1 million to make up for lost donations.

It’s unsustainable. The USDA program will help Good Shepherd and others keep their supply up, and it will provide extra demand for producers.

But the program will not be a success unless it helps smaller producers survive this tough time. They fill an important role in the economy and culture of this state, and this country, yet most operate on tight margins that don’t leave much room for error.

It would be a tragedy if some didn’t make it through the shutdown only because they didn’t get the aid that was due to them.


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