Press Releases

WASHINGTON – Today, U.S. Sens. Mark R. Warner and Tim Kaine (both D-VA) and Chris Van Hollen and Ben Cardin (both D-MD) applauded the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s decision to allow oyster and clam businesses to access funds included within the CARES Act Coronavirus Food Assistance Program. The Senators penned a letter in July urging USDA to include these businesses – many of which are small and family owned – given the economic hardship they’re facing due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Like other agricultural producers, the seafood and shellfish aquaculture industry in Virginia has suffered greatly as a result of this health and economic crisis,” said Senator Warner. “Compounded by supply chain and labor disruptions, this financial blow has strained many family-owned businesses who now find themselves with their backs against the wall. That’s why I’m glad that USDA has finally complied with our request to include these businesses in the relief programs established and funded by Congress. I trust that this will provide many independent seafood businesses with the reprieve they need to continue operations and emerge stronger after this crisis is over.”

“Virginia’s shellfish farmers are hurting. Due to the pandemic, they have experienced massive losses in sales that would normally go to restaurants. We have continually pushed USDA to do all that they can to help our shellfish producers withstand these difficult circumstances. This move by the USDA will provide much needed relief to these businesses, many of which are family owned and operated,” said Senator Kaine.

“Maryland’s small oyster and clam businesses are crucial to our local economy. But like many during this pandemic, they’re struggling to get by. Providing them access to these relief funds will help ensure that they can continue to make ends meet during this difficult time. I’m glad to see USDA heeded our calls, and I will continue working to support this vital local industry,” said Senator Van Hollen.

“Shellfish growing, harvesting and transport are vitally important to Maryland’s rural economies, and those engaged in these industries illustrate the hard work and determination that define so many of Maryland’s small businesses,” said Senator Cardin. “I’ve worked for years to expand markets and streamline regulations so these industries can expand, yet the pandemic has dealt an unforeseen blow to many producers. This assistance will provide a critical infusion of aid, hopefully allowing these aquaculture producers to persist until their markets return in full.”  

More details on the program, including application information, can be found here. USDA will be accepting applications from now through December 11, 2020.

 

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WASHINGTON – Today, U.S. Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-VA) continued to raise the alarm regarding the urgent need to secure H-2B visas for seasonal seafood workers in Virginia and around the United States. 

In a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Sen. Warner urged the U.S. Department of State to make clear that seafood companies seeking H-2B visas for their seasonal workers qualify for national interest exceptions (NIEs) to Presidential Proclamations 10014 and 10052which suspend entry to the United States for certain immigrant visa applicants through December 31, 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This clarification would help local businesses plan for seasonal seafood workers to obtain H-2B work visas for “travel necessary to facilitate the immediate and continued economic recovery of the United States.”

“With a half billion dollar economic impact, Virginia seafood is a key industry in the Commonwealth. Its success largely depends on seasonal workers, who shuck oysters, clams, and crabs, hand pick seafood meat, pack fish, and perform other critical tasks,” wrote Sen. Warner. “While seafood businesses have made good faith efforts to find local seasonal workers, employers often must rely on H-2B visas to fill difficult and labor-intensive positions. The industry is already confronting significant business challenges due to the pandemic, and now faces the potential for further economic harm unless it is able to access H-2B visas.”

In Virginia, the financial hardship of failing to secure visas for H-2B workers will be extreme, with the burden falling heavily on small, seasonal Virginia seafood companies already facing economic uncertainty due to the COVID-19 crisis,” he continued. “Without concrete guidance on the H-2B visa process as it relates to the Presidential Proclamations, our seafood industry remains in a perilous position, as businesses seek to survive the pandemic. I urge you to ensure congressionally-authorized H-2B visas are granted to seafood workers who meet the NIE guidelines.” 

The H-2B Temporary Non-Agricultural Visa Program allows U.S. employers to hire seasonal, non-immigrant workers during peak seasons to supplement the existing American workforce. In order to be eligible for the program, employers are required to declare that there are not enough U.S. workers available to do the temporary work.

Sen. Warner has long advocated for Virginia’s seafood processing industry – a community largely made up of rural, family-owned operations. In February, Sen. Warner urged the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to release additional H-2B visas needed to support local seafood businesses in Virginia and states like Alaska, Maryland, and North Carolina. Additionally, Sen. Warner has successfully pressed the Trump Administration to extend a ban on offshore oil and gas drilling to Virginia in accordance with requests from Virginia’s coastal communities, whose seafood industries would have been be severely impacted by the Trump Administration proposal to allow offshore drilling.

The text of the full letter is here and can be found below.

Dear Secretary Pompeo: 

I write to urge you to clarify that seafood companies seeking H-2B visas for their seasonal workers, via the Temporary Nonagricultural Worker Program, do qualify for the national interest exemption to Presidential Proclamation 10052. 

With a half billion dollar economic impact, Virginia seafood is a key industry in the Commonwealth. Its success largely depends on seasonal workers, who shuck oysters, clams, and crabs, hand pick seafood meat, pack fish, and perform other critical tasks. While seafood businesses have made good faith efforts to find local seasonal workers, employers often must rely on H-2B visas to fill difficult and labor-intensive positions. The industry is already confronting significant business challenges due to the pandemic, and now faces the potential for further economic harm unless it is able to access H-2B visas. 

As you know, Presidential Proclamations (P.P.) 10014 and 10052 suspend entry to the United States for certain immigrant visa applicants through December 31, 2020, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Both proclamations include National Interest Exceptions (NIE), which allow the government to issue H-2B work visas for “travel necessary to facilitate the immediate and continued economic recovery of the United States.” The proclamations further state that the NIE apply when at least two of three indicators are present: 

1.) The applicant was previously employed and trained by the petitioning U.S. employer. 

2.) The applicant is traveling based on a temporary labor certification (TLC) that reflects continued need for the worker. 

3.) Denial of the visa pursuant to P.P. 10052 will cause financial hardship to the U.S. employer. 

Many seafood companies in Virginia and around the United States depend on seasonal workers whose positions meet all three of the criteria listed above. In Virginia, the financial hardship of failing to secure visas for H-2B workers will be extreme, with the burden falling heavily on small, seasonal Virginia seafood companies already facing economic uncertainty due to the COVID-19 crisis. For example: 

1.) A bait fish packing operation in the Northern Neck of Virginia will lose approximately $150,000 in revenue each month without H-2B visa workers and will not be able to purchase bait fish from watermen or purse seine vessels. 

2.) A crab picking operation in Hampton Roads will lose five American full-time salary positions and approximately $600,000 in revenue each month without H-2B workers. 

3.) A Northern Neck bait fish operation will lose approximately $1M each month in combined bait fish purchases and profit in sales. As a result, American truck drivers, supervisors and office personnel will be laid off. 

4.) A bait fish operation will lose $350,000 each month in product sales without H-2B visas. 

While I understand that local consulates make individual visa approval decisions, I ask that the Administration clarify that seafood workers are covered by the NIE. Additionally, I ask that you provide a response to the following questions, either via writing or a meeting, by October 14, 2020: 

1.) Are all consulates aware of the clear NIE guidance for P.P. 10014 and 10052? 

2.) Do visa applicants and petitioning employers receive a clear explanation of factors that result in a visa being denied? If so, how is this explanation communicated? 

3.) What point of contact has the ultimate authority to provide such explanations? 

4.) What process is available for visa applicants who appear to meet all visa and NIE guidelines to have their H-2B visa denials reconsidered? 

Virginia seafood businesses, many of which are family-owned operations going back multiple generations, depend on the Department of State to issue congressionally-authorized H-2B visas in order to survive. Without concrete guidance on the H-2B visa process as it relates to the Presidential Proclamations, our seafood industry remains in a perilous position, as businesses seek to survive the pandemic. I urge you to ensure congressionally-authorized H-2B visas are granted to seafood workers who meet the NIE guidelines. Thank you for your careful attention to this critical matter.

Sincerely,

 

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WASHINGTON – U.S. Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-VA) joined Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-NH) and 27 of their colleagues in calling for a full extension of school meal waivers through the end of the 2020-2021 school year so that schools have the flexibility that they need to fully serve students whether or not they are attending school in person. 

Sens. Warner, Hassan and colleagues initially made this request in July, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently announced that it will agree to extend some of the school meal waivers.

“We are glad that you have extended some school meal waivers until the end of the 2020-2021 school year, and grateful that you recently extended some other waivers until December 31, 2020. However, we remain concerned by your decision not to extend all waivers for the entire 2020-2021 school year, and we urge you to correct this as soon as possible,” wrote the Senators.

The Senators raise the importance of full extension given that the economic and public health impact of the COVID-19 pandemic will clearly last beyond the end of the calendar year.

“The remaining waivers that you have not extended for the entire 2020-2021 school year are desperately needed by school meal providers across the country to ensure they have the funding, flexibility, and certainty to continue feeding schoolchildren for the entire upcoming school year. Many localities are dealing with budget shortfalls due to the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, and are relying on federal assistance to keep providing meals,” wrote the Senators. “Furthermore, millions of parents have lost their jobs in the past six months and are struggling to ensure that their children have access to nutritious and healthy meals. Many families are relying on school provided meals as one of the only reliable sources of healthy food for their children.” 

The Senators also address why USDA already has the authority necessary to fully extend the critical waivers.

In addition to Sens. Warner and Hassan, the letter was sent by Senators Cory Booker (D-NJ), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Ben Cardin (D-MD), Tom Carper (D-DE), Bob Casey (D-PA), Chris Coons (D-DE), Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), Dick Durbin (D-IL), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Mazie Hirono (D-HI), Angus King (I-ME), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Ed Markey (D-MA), Bob Menendez (D-NJ), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Chris Murphy (D-CT), Patty Murray (D-WA), Jack Reed (D-RI), Jacky Rosen (D-NV), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ), Tina Smith (D-MN), Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), and Ron Wyden (D-OR).

Read the Senators’ full letter below:

 

Dear Secretary Perdue:  

Thank you for your letter dated August 20, 2020 in response to our letter dated July 29, 2020 urging you to extend all relevant school meal waivers for the entire 2020-2021 school year. We are glad that you have extended some school meal waivers until the end of the 2020-2021 school year, and grateful that you recently extended some other waivers until December 31, 2020. However, we remain concerned by your decision not to extend all waivers for the entire 2020-2021 school year, and we urge you to correct this as soon as possible. We also write to express disagreement with your conclusion that the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) does not have the authority to extend these waivers until the end of the next school year.

In your response to our July 29th letter you wrote that the request to extend all of the relevant waivers “is beyond what USDA currently has the authority to implement.” This conclusion is based off an incorrect interpretation of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (Pub. L. No. 116-127) (“FFCRA”). FFCRA clearly provided USDA with the authority to issue these waivers for the 2020-2021 school year. The only constraint that Congress imposed upon USDA’s authority to issue these waivers was the requirement in Section 2202(e) that they be issued on or before September 30, 2020. Waivers issued prior to that sunset date can still cover periods after the sunset date, including the entire 2020-2021 school year.  USDA’s previous decision to extend a number of the nationwide waivers that we mentioned in our letter until the end of the 2020-2021 school year including for the food management company contract duration, local school wellness assessment, and the fresh fruit and vegetable program parent pickup requirements – and your recent decision to extend the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP), Seamless Summer Option (SSO), and Area Eligibility Waivers until the end of this calendar year – clearly show that USDA believes it has the authority to extend these waivers well beyond the sunset date. [1]   

The remaining waivers that you have not extended for the entire 2020-2021 school year are desperately needed by school meal providers across the country to ensure they have the funding, flexibility, and certainty to continue feeding schoolchildren for the entire upcoming school year. Many localities are dealing with budget shortfalls due to the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, and are relying on federal assistance to keep providing meals. Furthermore, millions of parents have lost their jobs in the past six months and are struggling to ensure that their children have access to nutritious and healthy meals. Many families are relying on school provided meals as one of the only reliable sources of healthy food for their children.

We urge you to reverse your decision and use the authority given to your Department under the FFCRA to extend the following waivers nationwide for the entire 2020-2021 school year: 

  • Area Eligibility Waiver
  • Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) and Seamless Summer Option (SSO) Waivers
  • Unexpected School Closures Waiver

We recognize the incredible effort USDA has undertaken to ensure that millions of schoolchildren in this country do not go hungry. This hard work is not yet complete and we implore you to continue working with states and use USDA’s already existing authority to provide them with the flexibility needed to enable food authorities to provide meals through USDA’s child nutrition programs. For any questions, please reach out to Andres Hoyos at Andres_Hoyos@hassan.senate.gov and Tom Koester atTom_Koester@hassan.senate.gov.  We look forward to receiving your response as soon as possible on this timely matter.

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WASHINGTON – Today, U.S. Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine (both D-VA) announced $1,487,500 in federal funding from the National Park Service (NPS)'s Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) to preserve and protect public land in Virginia.
 
"The LWCF grant awards for Springdale Regional Park and John J. Radcliffe Conservation Area will preserve and protect Virginia's rich history and beautiful landscapes." said the Senators. "Communities across the Commonwealth will be able to continue caring for our parks for future generations to enjoy."
 
Springdale Regional Park in Loudoun County will receive $1,087,500 to acquire 128 acres of land to protect the Potomac River shoreline and provide public recreational access to land that is not currently protected. The acquisition of the property has significant long-term benefits and will allow for the permanent protection of scenic open space resources in the state Catoctin Rural Historic District and along Route 15 in the Journey Through Hallowed Ground National Heritage Area.
 
John J. Radcliffe Conservation Area in Chesterfield County will receive $440,000 to acquire 73.86 acres of land that will be used to increase recreational opportunities and expand public outdoor recreation areas.
 
The LWCF State and Local Assistance Program provides matching grants for local and state park projects outside national park boundaries. LWCF grants are locally determined and competed at the state level through a process designed and managed by state partners.
 
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WASHINGTON – U.S. Sens. Mark R. Warner and Tim Kaine (both D-VA), along with U.S. Reps. Robert Wittman (R-VA), Gerry Connolly (D-VA), Don Beyer (D-VA), A. Donald McEachin (D-VA), Elaine Luria (D-VA), and Jennifer Wexton (D-VA), sent a letter to ensure that children in Virginia have access to healthy foods during the COVID-19 pandemic, when they may be participating in distance learning from home and therefore unable to easily access school-provided breakfast and lunch. In a letter to USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue, the members of Congress requested that USDA extend and approve a number of waiver requests made by the Commonwealth of Virginia that would help deliver food to Virginia children during the pandemic.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has forced school districts across the country to adopt online and distance-learning models in order to continue educational instruction for students. This shift, while necessary, has disrupted the ability of many students to receive consistent access to healthy meals. For many children, the breakfasts and lunches they receive at school may be the only healthy and regular meals they receive during the week,” wrote the members of Congress. “In light of the unprecedented challenges faced by school districts in Virginia and across the country, we request that USDA extend the following waivers to ensure school districts have the certainty they need to continue providing students with healthy and nutritious meals.”

Throughout the pandemic, Virginia’s 132 school divisions have continued to provide meals for students through a number of meal service options. However, this shift has increased costs for schools, who are also facing decreased revenues due to diminished levels of participation in meal programs, as well as increased costs related to the need for more shelf-stable foods, packaging, and personal protective equipment. Specifically, participation in the school breakfast program has decreased by 35 percent and the number of school lunches served has dropped by 60 percent.

In order to ensure the uninterrupted and safe distribution of meals to Virginia’s students, the members of Congress requested that USDA extend waivers for the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) and the Seamless Summer Option (SSO) until at least June 30, 2021 so that all students can have safe and efficient access to breakfast and lunch. The members of Congress also asked for an extension of the Area Eligibility waiver, which would continue to allow school districts to provide nutritious meals to all students regardless of their ability to pay, as well as increase critically-needed reimbursements to school divisions and eliminate burdensome paperwork requirements that affect the ability of schools to provide meals to students. 

In their letter, the members of Congress also urged USDA to approve the following outstanding waiver requests from the Virginia Office of School Nutrition Programs:

  • A waiver to extend the cycle of administrative reviews for the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) and the At Risk Portion of the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) for all school districts from once during a three-year period to once every five years to allow flexibility to plan during the pandemic.
  • A waiver to eliminate the requirement that afterschool programs must have an educational or enrichment activity with the service of meals.
  • A waiver to eliminate the requirement that potable water be available or accessible to children during meal service during breakfast in the cafeteria and lunch.

Sens. Warner and Kaine have been strong advocates of expanded access to food assistance for families in the Commonwealth amid the COVID-19 outbreak. In May, following pressure  by Sens. Warner and Kaine, USDA formally authorized Virginia’s request to participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) Online Purchasing Pilot Program, which allows SNAP recipients to order their groceries online amid the current health crisis. In March, the Senators also successfully pushed USDA to waive a requirement that needlessly forced children to physically accompany their parent or guardian to a school lunch distribution site in order to receive USDA-reimbursable meals. Additionally, the Senators previously secured Virginia’s USDA Disaster Household Distribution Program designation, which allows food banks to distribute USDA foods directly to Virginia families in need while limiting interactions between food bank staff, volunteers, and recipients.

A copy of this letter is available here and below.

Dear Secretary Perdue:

We write today in support of several waiver requests made by the Commonwealth of Virginia that would assist in the delivery of food to Virginia children during the ongoing pandemic. We appreciate the steps taken by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to grant flexibility to states and school districts to face this unprecedented crisis. However, school districts in Virginia continue to face significant obstacles to providing meals for children and require additional flexibility and assistance in order to keep students fed through the duration of this pandemic.

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced school districts across the country to adopt online and distance-learning models in order to continue educational instruction for students. This shift, while necessary, has disrupted the ability of many students to receive consistent access to healthy meals. For many children, the breakfasts and lunches they receive at school may be the only healthy and regular meals they receive during the week. Despite the challenges presented by COVID-19, Virginia’s 132 school divisions continue to provide meals through a variety of meal service options. However, the unanticipated and immediate shift in meal service due to school closures has substantively increased costs and decreased revenue for school districts. Despite efforts to bolster usage, participation in Virginia’s meal programs has dropped significantly compared to the previous year. Participation in the school breakfast program has decreased by 35 percent and the number of school lunches served has dropped by 60 percent. The decrease in service, and thus revenue, has been compounded by an increase in costs for additional packaging, shelf-stable foods, distribution, and personal protective equipment.

In light of the unprecedented challenges faced by school districts in Virginia and across the country, we request that USDA extend the following waivers to ensure school districts have the certainty they need to continue providing students with healthy and nutritious meals. First, we request that USDA extend the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) and the Seamless Summer Option (SSO) waivers through at least June 30, 2021. Allowing school districts to offer free breakfast and lunch to all students is the best way to ensure meals are provided safely and efficiently during the current crisis. Further, we request an extension of the Area Eligibility waiver, which would allow school districts to provide nutritious meals to all students regardless of their ability to pay, increase critically needed reimbursements to school divisions, and eliminate burdensome paperwork requirements that affect the ability of schools to provide meals to students.

As the Department strives to adapt our nation’s nutrition programs for this school year, we would also urge you to approve outstanding waiver requests from the Virginia Office of School Nutrition Programs. Specifically, Virginia has requested the following waivers:

• A waiver to extend the cycle of administrative reviews for the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) and the At Risk Portion of the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) for all school districts from once during a three-year period to once every five years to allow flexibility to plan during the pandemic.
• A waiver to eliminate the requirement that afterschool programs must have an educational or enrichment activity with the service of meals.
• A waiver to eliminate the requirement that potable water be available or accessible to children during meal service during breakfast in the cafeteria and lunch.

To ensure the uninterrupted and safe distribution of meals to Virginia’s students, we urge USDA to extend the SFSP and SSO waivers, the Area Eligibility waiver, and work with the Virginia Department of Education to approve the Commonwealth’s outstanding waiver requests as quickly as possible.

Thank you for your attention to this matter. We look forward to continuing to work with you to ensure every child has access to healthy and nutritious foods during this public health emergency.

Sincerely,

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WASHINGTON — U.S. Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-VA) joined Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and 17 colleagues in a letter to Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue to express concerns about how a lack of access to healthy, affordable food is hurting low-income communities and communities of color during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. To help address the disproportionate impact of the virus on these communities, the senators are urging Secretary Perdue to identify and prioritize programs at the Department of Agriculture intended to minimize food deserts — areas where people have limited access to a variety of healthy and affordable food — and support local and regional food development projects.

Approximately 23.5 million Americans live in a food desert where the absence of a grocery store within one mile of their home makes it more difficult to purchase fresh, healthy, and nutritious food. Additionally, in some of the more rural regions of the country, individuals may have to travel further than 10 miles to the nearest grocer. Low-income Americans and people of color are more likely to live in neighborhoods with few healthy food options, and studies have shown that a significant barrier to the consumption of healthy foods in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods is limited access to a grocery store. Consequently, many in these communities are at a higher risk of severe illness from COVID-19 due to underlying health conditions like heart disease, obesity, and diabetes. In addition, many people in these neighborhoods do not have access to food or meal delivery services and must rely on public transportation or shared rides to purchase healthy food, increasing their potential exposure to the virus,”the lawmakers wrote. 

“As part of a comprehensive response to the coronavirus pandemic, we urge you to identify and prioritize programs intended to minimize food deserts and support local and regional food development projects.” 

Warner, Klobuchar and Brown were joined on the letter by Sens. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), Bob Casey (D-PA), Tina Smith (D-MN), Dick Durbin (D-IL), Michael Bennet (D-CO), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Patty Murray (D-WA), Bob Menendez (D-NJ), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Ben Cardin (D-MD), Chris Coons (D-DE), Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), Mazie Hirono (D-HI), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), and Joe Manchin (D-WV).

As a senior member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, Klobuchar successfully pushed for key provisions in the 2018 Farm Bill that provided support for local food systems, farmers’ markets, urban agriculture, and loan financing for food-related projects in rural and urban areas. These included provisions that created an urban agriculture program at the Department of Agriculture, strengthened local food economies by securing permanent funding for farmers’ markets, local food systems, and value-added production, and ensured adequate and equitable access to credit and training opportunities for new, beginning, and minority farmers.  

Full text of the letter can be found HERE and below:

 

Dear Secretary Perdue:

We write to express concerns about how a lack of access to healthy, affordable food is hurting low-income communities and communities of color during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. To help address the disproportionate impact of the virus on these communities, we urge you to identify and prioritize programs at the Department of Agriculture intended to minimize food deserts and support local and regional food development projects.

Initial research has identified several factors contributing to the disproportionate adverse health outcomes for low-income and communities of color during the pandemic, including a lack of access to health care services, a higher incidence of pre-existing conditions, and a greater likelihood of working in a front line job.Several of these factors are exacerbated by lack of access to healthy, affordable food.

Approximately 23.5 million Americans live in a food desert where the absence of a grocery store within one mile of their home makes it more difficult to purchase fresh, healthy, and nutritious food. Additionally, in some of the more rural regions of the country, individuals may have to travel further than 10 miles to the nearest grocer. Low-income Americans and people of color are more likely to live in neighborhoods with few healthy food options, and studies have shown that a significant barrier to the consumption of healthy foods in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods is limited access to a grocery store. Consequently, many in these communities are at a higher risk of severe illness from COVID-19 due to underlying health conditions like heart disease, obesity, and diabetes. In addition, many people in these neighborhoods do not have access to food or meal delivery services and must rely on public transportation or shared rides to purchase healthy food, increasing their potential exposure to the virus.

To combat this public health crisis, we need a proactive approach that emphasizes the prevention of underlying health conditions and minimizes potential exposure to the virus while traveling to purchase food by expanding healthy food options in low-income communities and communities of color. Congress has provided the Department of Agriculture authority and funding to address the prevalence of food deserts and to support local food systems through such programs as the Healthy Food Financing Initiative, the Local Agriculture Market Program, and the Urban Agriculture Program. Additionally, Rural Development has several business and industry loan guarantee and community facilities grant programs that can be applied to food development projects in underserved food desert areas.

As part of a comprehensive response to the coronavirus pandemic, we urge you to identify and prioritize programs intended to minimize food deserts and support local and regional food development projects.

Sincerely,

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WASHINGTON – Today, U.S. Sens. Mark R. Warner and Tim Kaine (both D-VA) expressed concern with the disproportionately small share of food that Virginia has received under the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)’s Farmers to Families Food Box program and the lack of approved distributors able to meet the needs of food banks in rural areas. In a letter to USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue, the Senators raised a series of questions regarding the implementation of the food purchasing and distribution program, which was authorized by Congress to assist those in need during the COVID-19 crisis. 

“As of today, we understand food banks in the Feeding America network in Virginia are expected to receive approximately 2.3 million pounds of food out of the 264 million pounds of product that are expected to be distributed during the first phase of the Farmers to Families Food Box program,” the Senators wrote. “If this program were allocated in the same manner as The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP), we would expect Virginia to receive about 5.3 million pounds of product – more than double the current amount anticipated.”

The Senators also raised issue with the lack of contracts awarded to Virginia-based distributors, and noted the trouble that food banks throughout the Commonwealth have had in finding approved distributors able to reach more rural areas.

“Only one Virginia-based distributor – DeLune Corp in Springfield, Virginia – was awarded a contract in the first round of approval. This has made it difficult to get food boxes to all of Virginia’s food banks – especially in Southwest Virginia,” the Senators continued. “We have heard from a number of our food banks that have had difficulty finding approved distributors in the Mid-Atlantic region willing to provide food boxes. As you can imagine, this has put many of our food banks in a difficult position as they continue to experience record demand due to the ongoing public health crisis.”

In the letter, Sens. Warner and Kaine posed the following series of questions for Sec. Perdue regarding the program’s recent implementation:

  1. In awarding the first round of contracts, did USDA require awardees to demonstrate that they could service certain geographic areas to ensure each state in a region would receive coverage proportional to population and need? In future contract awards, will USDA examine a distributor’s capability to service large and diverse geographic areas?
  1. How does USDA intend to award subsequent contracts under this program in a way that ensures a fair distribution of the national allotment? What information will USDA consider as it makes future contract awards to ensure each state and region is treated equitably?
  1. According to press reports, at least one company that received a contract, Ben Holtz Consulting DBA California Avocados Direct, has had their contract terminated. How will this funding be re-allocated? Have any other contracts been revoked?
  1. Did USDA solicit information from food banks to assess their current needs before the first round of contracts were awarded? Does USDA plan to offer food banks the opportunity to provide information on the type and amount of food they need to feed their respective service areas as the agency considers future rounds of funding?

Sens. Warner and Kaine have been strong advocates of expanded access to food assistance for families in the Commonwealth amid the COVID-19 outbreak. Last month, following pressure by Sens. Warner and Kaine, the U.S. Department of Agriculture formally authorized Virginia’s request to participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) Online Purchasing Pilot Program, which allows SNAP recipients to order their groceries online amid the current health crisis. In March, the Senators also successfully pushed USDA to waive a requirement that needlessly forced children to physically accompany their parent or guardian to a school lunch distribution site in order to receive USDA-reimbursable meals. Additionally, the Senators previously secured Virginia’s USDA Disaster Household Distribution Program designation, which allows food banks to distribute USDA foods directly to Virginia families in need while limiting interactions between food bank staff, volunteers, and recipients.

 

A copy of today’s letter is available here and below. 

The Honorable Sonny Perdue

Secretary

United States Department of Agriculture

1400 Independence Avenue, SW

Washington, DC 20250

Secretary Perdue:

We write today concerning the recent implementation of the United Stated Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Farmers to Families Food Box program. We understand the enormous challenges you and your team are facing in combatting the effects of COVID-19, and we appreciate your efforts to assist farmers, food banks, and address food insecurity during this difficult time. However, we are deeply concerned that the Commonwealth of Virginia has received a disproportionately small share of food under this program to date. 

As of today, we understand food banks in the Feeding America network in Virginia are expected to receive approximately 2.3 million pounds of food out of the 264 million pounds of product that are expected to be distributed during the first phase of the Farmers to Families Food Box program. If this program were allocated in the same manner as The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP), we would expect Virginia to receive about 5.3 million pounds of product – more than double the current amount anticipated.

In addition, only one Virginia-based distributor – DeLune Corp in Springfield, Virginia – was awarded a contract in the first round of approval. This has made it difficult to get food boxes to all of Virginia’s food banks – especially in Southwest Virginia. We have heard from a number of our food banks that have had difficulty finding approved distributors in the Mid-Atlantic region willing to provide food boxes. As you can imagine, this has put many of our food banks in a difficult position as they continue to experience record demand due to the ongoing public health crisis.

In order to better understand this program and how allocations were made, we ask that you please respond to the following questions:

In awarding the first round of contracts, did USDA require awardees to demonstrate that they could service certain geographic areas to ensure each state in a region would receive coverage proportional to population and need? In future contract awards, will USDA examine a distributor’s capability to service large and diverse geographic areas?

How does USDA intend to award subsequent contracts under this program in a way that ensures a fair distribution of the national allotment? What information will USDA consider as it makes future contract awards to ensure each state and region is treated equitably?

According to press reports, at least one company that received a contract, Ben Holtz Consulting DBA California Avocados Direct, has had their contract terminated. How will this funding be re-allocated? Have any other contracts been revoked?

Did USDA solicit information from food banks to assess their current needs before the first round of contracts were awarded? Does USDA plan to offer food banks the opportunity to provide information on the type and amount of food they need to feed their respective service areas as the agency considers future rounds of funding?

Again, we sincerely appreciate your commitment to helping keep families fed during this difficult time. We all want to ensure this program and other USDA programs designed to combat hunger work as effectively and efficiently as possible to maximize the benefits for all Americans. We look forward to continuing to work with you on ways to increase access to healthy and nutritious foods to all Americans.

Thank you for your attention to this matter. We look forward to your response.

Sincerely,

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WASHINGTON – Today, U.S. Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) joined Sens. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and Bob Casey (D-Pa.), Reps. John P. Sarbanes (D-Md.)  Bobby Scott (D-Va.), and members representing the Chesapeake Bay region in a bipartisan letter to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) urging continued investment in the health of the Chesapeake Bay. The letter, sent to Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Chief Matthew Lohr, underscores the importance of supporting the region’s farmers in their efforts to reduce pollution and provides recommendations as the Department prepares a final rule on the implementation of the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP), which supports these efforts. 

The Members write, “As members of the Chesapeake Bay delegation, we write with recommendations regarding implementation of the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) under the 2018 Farm Bill. We thank you and your team for your ongoing work to implement the 2018 Farm Bill, which included key improvements to benefit water quality and the health of the Chesapeake Bay.”

“As you know, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)’s financial and technical assistance for conservation efforts plays a critical role in cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay watershed and supporting states’ efforts to meet their commitments under the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint by 2025. These programs are essential to support farmers throughout the region as they adopt best management practices to limit the runoff of nitrogen, sediment and phosphorus and to improve the health of the Chesapeake Bay,” they continue. 

The Members go on to lay out four major recommendations to help ensure the continued benefit of the program to the region. The recommendations include: ensuring that the Chesapeake Bay Watershed remain designated as a Critical Conservation Area (CCA), highlighting the need for administrative and financial support for lead partners in RCPP implementation, and pressing for clarity and transparency on reporting requirements on conservation goals and outcomes.  

In addition to Sens. Warner, Van Hollen and Casey, Sens. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), Chris Coons (D-Del.), Tom Carper (D-Del.), Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), and Tim Kaine (D-Va.), signed the letter.

In addition to Representatives Sarbanes and Scott, Representatives Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.), Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), Don Beyer (D-Va.), David Trone (D-Md.), Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), Anthony G. Brown (D-Md.), Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), Donald McEachin (D-Va.), Elaine Luria (D-Va.), Lisa Blunt Rochester (D-Del.), Jennifer Wexton (D-Va.), Abigail D. Spanberger (D-Va.) and Kweisi Mfume (D-Md.) joined the letter. 

The full text of the letter is available here and below.

 

Dear Chief Lohr:

As members of the Chesapeake Bay delegation, we write with recommendations regarding implementation of the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) under the 2018 Farm Bill. We thank you and your team for your ongoing work to implement the 2018 Farm Bill, which included key improvements to benefit water quality and the health of the Chesapeake Bay. 

As you know, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)’s financial and technical assistance for conservation efforts plays a critical role in cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay watershed and supporting states’ efforts to meet their commitments under the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint by 2025. These programs are essential to support farmers throughout the region as they adopt best management practices to limit the runoff of nitrogen, sediment and phosphorus and to improve the health of the Chesapeake Bay.

RCPP was created in the 2014 Farm Bill by consolidating four previously separate programs, including the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Initiative (CBWI). CBWI provided an annual average of over $47 million over five years for conservation in our region, but that level of funding has not yet been provided to the region through RCPP. The 2018 Farm Bill made further modifications to RCPP, and the program continues to significantly contribute to farmer and partner driven conservation in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. To further enhance opportunities for the Chesapeake Bay Watershed and implement the changes included in the 2018 Farm Bill, we provide the following recommendations for inclusion in the RCPP final rule:

1)      Ensure the Chesapeake Bay watershed remains a Critical Conservation Area (CCA)

Agricultural conservation efforts are central to the Chesapeake Bay states’ Phase III Watershed Implementation Plans (WIPs). Our states’ agricultural sectors are committed to ongoing efforts to contribute to meeting nutrient reduction goals by 2025. Focused and targeted investments through partner driven programs like RCPP are a critical component of supporting our farmers in their efforts to improve the health of the Bay. We appreciate that the Farm Bill allocated 50 percent of RCPP funding to CCAs, and urge you to ensure that the Chesapeake Bay retain its CCA designation.  The 2018 Farm Bill made clear that Congressional intent was for the current CCAs to remain in place for the duration of the 2018 Farm Bill, unless the resource concerns of a given CCA were fully addressed. As conveyed through our states’ WIPs, there is still significant conservation needed to address water quality goals in the Chesapeake Bay.

2)      Provide support for the critical role that technical assistance plays in RCPP agreements.

We urge you to ensure that partners have appropriate technical assistance and administrative support from NRCS. We appreciate that Section 1464.23 (c) of the interim rule allows NRCS to provide funding to a partner for activities such as outreach, education and the development of metrics. As part of this critical component of RCPP projects, we also support the coverage of project management as part of an “Enhancement TA” allocation, within both RCPP Classic as well as the 2020 Alternative Funding Arrangement (AFA) funding announcement. We urge you to explicitly authorize this option in the final rule. There is a high administrative burden on lead partners and allowing them to recoup at least part of these costs is important and should be clearly stated. Additionally, we urge NRCS to provide clear guidance regarding the distinction between partner and NRCS roles under AFA or grant agreements. Following the publication of the AFA announcement, several outstanding questions remain, including questions around NRCS sign-off on implemented practices, producer privacy, contracts between partners and producers and the role of partners in monitoring project implementation following AFA completion. 

3)      Clearly include and identify reporting requirements in the final rule.

As highlighted in the Background section of the interim rule, and as directed in Section 2703 of the 2018 Farm Bill, NRCS must provide a semi-annual report on the status of obligated contracts and an annual report describing how the Secretary used technical assistance. This transparency and information is critical to partners in the Chesapeake Bay, and we urge NRCS to ensure that these details and directives are included in the final rule. Further, Section 2706 of the 2018 Farm Bill also required reports to Congress on RCPP projects. We recommend that these requirements also be specified in the interim rule. For CCAs, these reporting requirements include critical information regarding how conservation outcomes and goals are being achieved through the selected RCPP projects.

4)      Align Chesapeake Bay CCA goals with local WIP goals, CEAP findings and prioritize conservation outcomes.

The 2018 Farm Bill adds language to the purpose of RCPP directing USDA to engage producers and partners in projects to achieve “greater conservation outcomes and benefits” for producers than would otherwise be achieved. We therefore urge NRCS to ensure that RCPP implementation maximizes conservation outcomes and benefits for the Chesapeake Bay. We urge you to work with your State Technical Committees to inform the project selection and ranking process at the state level. Further, our states’ WIPs, which include local area goals, as well as the Chesapeake Bay Conservation Effects Assessment Project (CEAP) can help identify the acres, practices and projects with the greatest potential for water quality benefits. Through RCPP, and through collaboration with Bay partners, NRCS should ensure that targeted conservation efforts continue to improve the health of the watershed.

Thank you for considering our recommendations and we look forward to working with you on RCPP implementation and continued efforts to support farmers and program partners in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. 

Sincerely,

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WASHINGTON – Today, U.S. Sens. Mark R. Warner and Tim Kaine (both D-VA) applauded $10,453,400 in federal funding for water improvement projects in rural Virginia. The funding, from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), was awarded through the Water and Waste Disposal Loan and Grant program.

“Virginians deserve access to safe drinking water and waste disposal systems, regardless of whether they live in a dense city, or a small rural community,” said the Senators. “That’s why we’re glad to know that these federal dollars will be put towards these much-needed projects in the Commonwealth.”  

The funding will be distributed as below:

The Nelson County Service Authority in Nelson County, Va. will receive $1,174,000 in loans and $3,149,400 in grants to make needed improvements to the Schuyler wastewater system. Construction includes rehabilitation of approximately 12,760 linear feet of gravity sewer and the replacement of the trickling filter wastewater treatment plant with an extended air-activated sludge package plant. This project will correct an existing health hazard identified by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), which issued a Notice of Violation based on incidences of noncompliance for Biochemical Oxygen Demand (BODs) and E. Coli. Violations occur due to a combination of the degradation of the treatment plant and excessive inflow and infiltration from the collection system.

The Scott County Public Service Authority in Scott County, Va. will receive $269,000 in loans and $269,000 in grants to provide public sewer service to the Daniel Boone community and correct a health hazard caused by failing private septic systems. Currently, many residents straight-pipe raw sewage to creeks and/or the ground and are not in compliance with the Commonwealth of Virginia's Sewage Handling and Disposal Regulations.

The Town of Amherst in Amherst County, Va. will receive $397,000 in loans and $938,000 in grants to make improvements to the town's wastewater collection and treatment system. The collection system was installed in the 1960's and 1970's and consists of terra cotta and concrete pipes. The most significant problems are structural failure and inflow and infiltration. The local health district has documented sewerage overflows that have created a public health threat as they overflow into individual homes, residential areas, and commercial areas. Construction includes the replacement and/or rehabilitation of approximately 42,154 linear feet of collection lines, manholes, bypass pumping, and related appurtenances. In addition, existing equipment at the wastewater treatment plant will be replaced, including new effluent disc filter equipment, a new ultraviolet disinfection system, and the replacement of a pump station.

The Town of Big Stone Gap in Wise County, Va. will receive $1,762,000 in loans and $2,091,000 in grants to make improvements to the town's water distribution system. The system is out of compliance with state waterworks regulations for minimum pressure, which creates cross contamination with groundwater and allows pathogens to enter the water system, creating a health hazard. Construction includes the replacement of approximately 33,500 linear feet of 3/4-inch to 10-inch water line, installation of master meters, replacement of water meters, a pump station upgrade, and related appurtenances. 

The Town of Clifton Forge in Alleghany County, Va. will receive $404,000 in loans to make improvements to the town's dam. These additional funds are awarded to complete the project. The dam is located on Smith Creek, a tributary to the Jackson River in Alleghany County, and impounds the drinking water reservoir that feeds the water treatment plant. Under the new Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation's Dam Safety regulations, the structure has been classified as a "high hazard dam" with a documented principal spillway deficiency and inadequate structural stability. This project will bring the dam into compliance with dam safety regulations and includes raising the non-overflow sections of the dam, raising the left non-overflow earth buttressed core wall section, removing the existing spillway piers, installing one vertical anchor per spillway monolith and sealing a horizontal joint leak. Finally, the existing bridge piers and pedestrian bridge will be demolished and replaced with a single-span steel truss pedestrian bridge.

The USDA’s Water and Waste Disposal Loan and Grant program provides funding for clean and reliable drinking water systems, sanitary sewage disposal, sanitary solid waste disposal, and storm water drainage to households and businesses in eligible rural areas.

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WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senators Mark R. Warner and Tim Kaine cosponsored legislation to increase the ability for Americans struggling with food insecurity to receive restaurant meals during the COVID-19 pandemic. Specifically, the COVID-19 Anti-Hunger Restaurant Relief for You Act of 2020—or the SNAP CARRY Act—expands eligibility for the SNAP Restaurant Meals Program (RMP) and waives program requirements to make it easier for states and restaurants to participate in the program during emergencies like the COVID-19 pandemic. The RMP prevents hunger in some of the most vulnerable communities by allowing people who may not have the ability or a place to prepare their own food to purchase discounted prepared meals at participating restaurants with their SNAP benefits. 

“We are proud to support this effort to expand the use of SNAP benefits to participating restaurants,” said the Senators. “This legislation is a win-win for increasing food security and supporting local restaurants – two critical issues amid this pandemic.”

During emergencies like COVID-19 when there are often unforeseen challenges around food access, the RMP could serve to ensure those struggling with hunger can easily and safely access food. In addition, as the restaurant industry struggles with closures due to COVID-19, the RMP would help prevent job loss among restaurant employees. However, statutory limits to the program present barriers to its use. 

The SNAP CARRY Act

1.     Allows all SNAP-eligible individuals to utilize the RMP during a nationally declared disaster or public health emergency

2.     Eases regulatory barriers on states participating in the program

3.     Gives the Secretary of Agriculture broad authority to authorize additional food retailers to participate in SNAP and the SNAP RMP

4.     Establishes an option and process for participating restaurants in the RMP to end their participation after COVID-19

The legislation is sponsored by Senator Chris Murphy. Click here for a one-pager. 

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WASHINGTON – Today, U.S. Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-VA) joined Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) Jack Reed (D-RI), and a bipartisan group of lawmakers in pushing to make sure urgently needed federal assistance is delivered to America’s fishermen and seafood processors, who have been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic.

In their letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, the senators request that upcoming coronavirus relief legislation include funding and provisions to support this critical industry.

“Our seafood processors and fishermen have been dealt a significant economic blow as a result of coronavirus and are in desperate need of federal assistance,” the senators wrote. “It has been reported that many of the nation’s fisheries have suffered sales declines as high as 95 percent.  In addition, while many other agricultural sectors have seen a significant increase in grocery sales, seafood has been left out of that economic upside, as stores have cut back on offerings.”

“The seafood industry is currently facing an unprecedented collapse in demand because of the novel coronavirus. We urge you to facilitate the government purchase of seafood products that would both ensure stability in this key sector and provide healthy, domestically produced food for Americans,” the senators continued.

Specifically, the senators recommend the allocation of $2 billion to the U.S. Department of Agriculture to purchase and redistribute seafood products to food banks—just as the agency is currently doing for other agricultural products. In addition, the letter requests that $1 billion be allocated to the Department of Commerce and NOAA to support direct payments to fisheries, seafood producers, and processors.

Not only do fisheries help Americans put food on the table for their families, they have long been the lifeblood of local and regional economies across the country. In 2016, the industry supported over one million good-paying jobs and generated more than $144 billion in sales, adding an estimated $61 billion to the nation’s GDP. In addition to the jobs, families, and communities it supports along every part of our country’s coastlines, the seafood industry fuels jobs throughout the country in processing, distribution, and food service industries.

Warner, Merkley, Murkowski, and Reed were joined in sending the bipartisan letter by U.S. Sens. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), Bill Cassidy (R-LA), Dan Sullivan (R-AK), Ron Wyden (D-OR), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Tom Carper (D-DE), Ben Cardin (D-MD), Angus King (I-ME), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Susan Collins (R-ME), Chris Coons (D-DE), Tim Kaine (D-VA), Brian Schatz (D-HI), Kamala Harris (D-CA), Edward J. Markey (D-MA), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Chris Murphy (D-CT), and Mazie Hirono (D-HI).

The full text of the letter is available here and is available below.

We write to urge the inclusion of support for the American seafood industry in the next coronavirus relief measure. Our seafood processors and fishermen have been dealt a significant economic blow as a result of coronavirus and are in desperate need of federal assistance.

The seafood industry is critical to local and regional economies across the country. In 2016, the industry supported over one million good-paying jobs and generated more than $144 billion in sales, adding an estimated $61 billion to the nation’s GDP. In addition to the jobs, families, and communities it supports along every part of our country’s coastlines, the seafood industry fuels jobs throughout the country in processing and distribution.

Due to efforts to prevent the spread of COVID-19, which has led to a near total shutdown of restaurants and other outlets serving fresh seafood, the supply chain of fishermen and seafood processors has been decimated. Notably, more than 68% of the $102.2 billion that consumers paid for U.S. fishery products in 2017 was spent at food service establishments. It has been reported that many of the nation’s fisheries have suffered sales declines as high as 95 percent.  In addition, while many other agricultural sectors have seen a significant increase in grocery sales, seafood has been left out of that economic upside, as stores have cut back on offerings.

We strongly urge you to include in the next coronavirus relief package at least $2 billion for the U.S. Department of Agriculture to purchase domestically harvested and processed seafood products and distribute them to local, state, and national non-profits providing food to hungry Americans. Given that few seafood producers have historically participated in USDA commodity purchasing programs, we request that $1 billion be set aside to finance the purchase by USDA of seafood products that have not typically been purchased and that have experienced economic impacts as a result of coronavirus.

We also ask that you include an additional $1 billion for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration under the terms of section 12005 of the CARES Act (P.L. 116-136) in order to provide direct relief to Tribal, subsistence, commercial, and charter fishery participants impacted by coronavirus. We request that Congress appropriate and permit the Secretary to make funding available as soon as practicable to all fishery participants, including commercial and recreational fishing and seafood businesses that have been impacted by declines in tourism and the closure of restaurants and other food service industries.

The seafood industry is currently facing an unprecedented collapse in demand because of the novel coronavirus. We urge you to facilitate the government purchase of seafood products that would both ensure stability in this key sector and provide healthy, domestically produced food for Americans.

Thank you for your attention to this critical request, and for your continued support of America’s seafood industry. 

Sincerely,

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WASHINGTON – U.S. Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-VA) joined Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Susan Collins (R-ME) and Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) and a group of bipartisan senators in urging the USDA to target COVID-19 relief provisions to reach local farmers in the new Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP). USDA created CFAP to administer relief Congress provided in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. While the CARES Act specifically provides direct assistance to local food producers, USDA has not announced specific details on how this relief will be targeted to local farmers. In a letter to USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue, the senators urged USDA once again to take steps to reach local farmers with assistance. 

“While USDA mentioned that the direct producer assistance program would be made available to producers of all sizes – including local producers, as required by the CARES Act – we are disappointed that there were no specific details on how this assistance will be tailored to the unique challenges that local producers face, or how the Department will conduct outreach to beginning and underserved farmers,” the senators wrote. 

The Senators are also specifically urging USDA to support local farmers by:

1.     Adjusting the CFAP payment calculations to better reflect the business models of local producers;

2.     Amending the covered time period to better reflect when local producers experienced losses; and

3.     Developing a robust and inclusive outreach plan to ensure all local food producers – including those with limited internet access and those for whom English is not their first language – are aware of the benefits available to them under the CFAP.

“While we appreciate USDA’s efforts to implement the CFAP with local food producers in mind, we encourage you to incorporate these recommendations as you finalize the CFAP program to ensure local producers are able to participate. By adjusting the mechanism USDA uses to calculate CFAP payments for local food producers, changing the covered time period to reflect those losses experienced after April 15, 2020, and implementing a robust and inclusive outreach plan to reach all local food producers, including new farmers, we can help minimize the significant burden COVID-19 has placed on our local producers,” the senators wrote.

The senators also pressed USDA for information it has yet to provide on how it will conduct outreach to ensure the participation of beginning, underserved, and local food producers in the direct producer assistance program. They urged USDA once again to develop a robust outreach plan that provides technical assistance and ensures local farmers are able to participate in the direct producer assistance program.

Earlier this month, the senators sent an initial letter urging the Trump Administration to provide relief for local farmers who are struggling, and pushed USDA to ensure that a portion of the $9.5 billion they secured in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, goes to local farmers who sell directly to consumers, schools, institutions, food hubs, regional distribution centers, retail markets, farmers markets and restaurants. USDA has yet to respond.

In addition to Warner, Brown, Collins and Stabenow, the letter was also signed by Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Patty Murray (D-WA), Ron Wyden (D-OR), Jack Reed (D-RI), Bob Menendez (D-NJ), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Bob Casey (D-PA), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Kristen Gillibrand (D-NY), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Joe Manchin (D-WV), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Brian Schatz (D-HI), Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Chris Murphy (D-CT), Mazie Hirono (D-HI), Angus King (I-ME), Tim Kaine (D-VA), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), and Tina Smith (D-MN).

A copy of the letter can be read here and below. 

 

Dear Secretary Perdue,

We write to follow up on our April 9, 2020 letter regarding U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) relief for local food producers, and to urge USDA to incorporate provisions specific to local food producers as the Agency finalizes the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP). Specifically, we urge USDA to provide support for local food producers by: 1) adjusting the CFAP payment calculations to better reflect the business models of local producers; 2) amending the covered time period to more appropriately reflect when local producers experienced losses; and 3) developing an inclusive outreach plan to ensure all local food producers – including those with limited internet access and those for whom English is not their first language – are aware of the benefits available to them under the CFAP. 

On April 17, 2020, USDA announced the new CFAP, which will provide a total of $19 billion in COVID-19 relief provided by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, including $16 billion for direct assistance to producers and $3 billion for commodity purchases and food distribution. While USDA mentioned that the direct producer assistance program would be made available to producers of all sizes – including local producers, as required by the CARES Act – we are disappointed that there were no specific details on how this assistance will be tailored to the unique challenges that local producers face, or how the Department will conduct outreach to beginning and underserved farmers.

Many local food producers sell a wide variety of crops, specialty crops, and livestock to a variety of local and regional markets. Often, specific records of sales are generalized into broad categories such as produce or livestock but not broken into specific sales by commodity. For example, these producers may have $100,000 in produce sales a year but may not be able to distinguish how much of a specific type of produce is sold at a farmers market versus directly to a restaurant or school. This type of commerce makes it extremely difficult for local food producers to participate in a generic “one size fits all” direct assistance program.

Given this complexity, we recommend that USDA calculate payments based on total farm revenue and consider price premiums for diversified producers, organics, and value-added producers. We also recommend implementation of flexible paperwork requirements that allow more producers to participate in the program and account for different types of record keeping that may be used to sell into local markets. 

During USDA’s public announcement, it was suggested that the direct producer assistance would cover up to 85 percent of losses incurred between January and April 15, 2020 and cover up to 30 percent of losses incurred after April 15, 2020. Many producers selling directly to restaurants or schools did not see an economic impact of the COVID-19 disaster until states began issuing stay at home orders and closed non-essential businesses. This occurred in most places starting in mid-March and could continue for several months into the future. We recommend USDA adjust the window of 85 percent coverage to reflect the time period during which farmers have experienced – and continue to experience – significant losses and additional costs as a result of widespread closure of businesses and institutions during the COVID-19 disaster.

In addition, USDA has not provided information on how it will conduct outreach to ensure the participation of beginning, underserved, and local food producers in the direct producer assistance program. Some of these producers already face existing barriers to entry including limited access to internet, English as a second language, and limited technical skills. We recommend USDA develop a thorough outreach plan that provides technical assistance and ensures these producers are able to participate in the direct to producer assistance program.

On top of these existing challenges, local food producers are in the middle of high planting season and many do not have existing relationships with USDA. These producers may struggle to learn a new federal program in time to participate before funding runs out so we request that USDA track farmer program participation and require receipt for service at local Farm Service Agency offices.

While we appreciate USDA’s efforts to implement the CFAP with local food producers in mind, we encourage you to incorporate these recommendations as you finalize the CFAP program to ensure local producers are able to participate. By adjusting the mechanism USDA uses to calculate CFAP payments for local food producers, changing the covered time period to reflect those losses experienced after April 15, 2020, and implementing an outreach plan to reach all local food producers, including new farmers, we can help minimize the significant burden COVID-19 has placed on our local producers.

Thank you for quickly implementing the CFAP; we appreciate your attention to the specific needs and serious challenges faced by local food producers and look forward to working with you on additional targeted relief efforts.

Sincerely,

 

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WASHINGTON – Today, U.S. Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) joined U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and 35 Democratic Senators in urging Vice President Mike Pence and other members of the Trump Administration to take action to help ensure the safety of the nation’s food supply and protect essential workers in the food supply chain. 

“It is vital that we do everything we can to protect food supply workers,” wrote the Senators. “Breakdowns in the food supply chain could have significant economic impacts for both consumers and agricultural producers. It is also imperative that precautions are taken to ensure the stability and safety of our food supply.”

There have been numerous reports of essential workers in meatpacking plants, processing facilities, farms, grocery stores, and markets falling ill from COVID-19. Some workers have reportedly felt pressured to go to work even when feeling sick. There are also serious concerns about the health of farmworkers who often work, live, and travel in close proximity, making social distancing very difficult.

“The severe shortages of adequate COVID-19 testing capability and personal protective equipment are exacerbating these problems,” wrote the Senators. “Lack of access to tests and personal protective equipment leaves essential food supply workers at even higher risk and makes the virus more likely to spread, harming more workers and further damaging our food supply chain.”

The Senators urged the White House and federal agencies to coordinate with state and local governments and the private sector to take aggressive action to protect essential workers and the food supply from further damage. The Senators also asked a series of questions about the actions being taken and coordination with the food industry.

In addition to Senator Stabenow, the letter was signed by Senators Stabenow, Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), Robert Casey (D-Penn.), Jack Reed (D-R.I.), Tom Carper (D-Del.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Angus King (I-Maine), Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), Tina Smith (D-Minn.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Chris Coons (D-Del.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Patty Murray (D-Wash.), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), Gary Peters (D-Mich.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Tim Kaine (D-Va.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Doug Jones (D-Ala.), Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.), Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), and Jackie Rosen (D-Nev.).

The letter was sent to Vice President Pence, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, Food and Drug Commissioner Stephen Hahn, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler, and Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf.

The full text of the letter is below. A PDF of the letter is available here.

Dear Vice President Pence, Secretary Perdue, Commissioner Hahn, Administrator Wheeler, Acting Secretary Wolf:  

We write today to inquire about the actions you are taking to ensure the safety of our nation’s food supply and protect our essential federal and private sector food supply chain workforce. There have been numerous reports of essential workers in meatpacking plants, processing facilities, farms, grocery stores, and markets falling ill from COVID-19. Other sources have reported that employee absences are high as people fear going into work due to the threat of infection. Some workers have reportedly felt pressured to work even when feeling sick. There are also serious concerns about the health of farmworkers who plant and harvest our crops and often work, live, and travel in close proximity, making social distancing very difficult.

The severe shortages of adequate COVID-19 testing capability and personal protective equipment are exacerbating these problems. Lack of access to tests and personal protective equipment leaves essential food supply workers at even higher risk and makes the virus more likely to spread, harming more workers and further damaging our food supply chain. Beyond the risk of infection, the lack of personal protective equipment is also harmful to farmworkers who apply pesticides and lack basic protections.

It is vital that we do everything we can to protect food supply workers and federal employees from COVID-19 infection. Breakdowns in the food supply chain could have significant economic impacts for both consumers and agricultural producers. It is also imperative that precautions are taken to ensure the stability and safety of our food supply. 

During this public health crisis, the White House and your agencies must coordinate with state and local governments and the private sector to take aggressive action to protect essential workers in the food supply chain. We need bold action and creative solutions, including greatly increased testing and tracing of those exposed to the virus in order to stop the spread. This is critically important to protect our essential workforce, our food supply chain, our agricultural economy, and rural America from further damage. We ask you to respond to the following questions by April 24, 2020:

1.     What are your plans for and what actions have you taken to help ensure the safety of essential food supply chain workers?  In the event that essential food supply chain workers, including all farmworkers, contract COVID-19, what are the preparedness and response plans and actions to control the outbreak, ensure treatment of workers, and ensure that our food supply is maintained? 

2.     USDA’s coronavirus website instructs the food industry to follow protocols set by local and state health departments for guidance about its business operations. 

a.     How are your agencies coordinating with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to ensure that employers know what is necessary to protect their essential food supply chain workers from COVID-19?

b.     A clear safety and health standard applicable to this novel virus would ensure employers understand what is necessary to keep essential food supply chain workers healthy so they can continue to work to keep the food chain strong. Have your agencies asked Secretary Scalia to use his existing authorities under the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act) to issue an Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS) to ensure employers of essential food supply chain workers institute necessary safety and health accommodations to deal with this virus? If not, why not?

c.     What are your agencies doing to create consistency regarding  recommendations from federal agencies that address issues related to monitoring of symptoms, sanitation practices, social distancing, personal protective equipment standards, and communication requirements? 

3.     Has the federal government worked with states or the food industry to develop contingency plans or guidance on how to adjust supply chains or move workforce capacity to other areas to address any personnel shortages?

4.     What concerns and unmet needs have you heard from the food supply industry regarding protection of these essential workers?  What are you doing to address shortages of personal protective equipment for private sector essential food supply chain workers?  

5.     What actions have you taken to make COVID-19 testing readily available to essential food supply chain workers?  

6.     Have you taken any actions to work with state and local governments and industry partners to find alternative housing options for essential food supply chain workers who have been infected by or exposed to COVID-19 to help stop it from spreading to others?   

7.     Protecting the health and safety of USDA inspectors from COVID-19 is critically important. 

a.     How many USDA inspectors have been infected by COVID-19? 
b.     Have infections of inspectors caused any slowing in or reduction of inspections or production? 
c.     Has USDA appropriately notified its personnel of the new COVID paid sick and family leave polices recently enacted by Congress? 
d.     USDA briefed congressional staff and said it has been unable to supply masks for all of its food inspectors and has instead offered to reimburse its employees for making or purchasing their own masks. What is USDA doing to supply all FSIS inspectors, APHIS inspectors, and AMS essential personnel with appropriate personal protective equipment and what is the timeframe when USDA will be able to provide this equipment? 

We thank you for your immediate attention to these questions. 

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WASHINGTON – Today, U.S. Sens. Mark R. Warner and Tim Kaine (both D-VA) sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) urging for swift approval of Virginia’s request to participate in the agency’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) Online Purchasing Pilot Program. This program allows SNAP recipients to use their benefits to purchase items online with authorized retailers in an effort to follow the social distancing guidelines during the coronavirus outbreak.

“The current public health crisis has resulted in an unprecedented rise in unemployment and a subsequent increase in demand for our nation’s anti-hunger programs, including SNAP. While USDA has moved swiftly to reduce barriers and increase access to this program during the current public health emergency, most SNAP recipients are only able to utilize these benefits in person at grocery stores or other retailers. This requirement places SNAP recipients at higher risk of infection, as they are not able to utilize various online grocery delivery services that are available for consumers,” wrote the Senators in a letter to USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue.

The 2014 Farm Bill required USDA to establish a pilot program to test the feasibility of SNAP beneficiaries utilizing their benefits online with authorized retailers. To date, only a small number of states are authorized to participate in this program and have set up systems to allow SNAP recipients in their respective states to use their benefits with online retailers. In light of the current public health emergency, USDA is working to expand the program to additional states on a case-by-case basis if they meet the requirements to administer the online program.  

In their letter to USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue, Sens. Warner and Kaine urge the agency to approve the Virginia Department of Social Services request to participate in the pilot program and expand the program nationwide.

“To ensure the health and safety of SNAP beneficiaries in the Commonwealth, we urge USDA to work with the Virginia Department of Social Services to approve Virginia’s request to participate in the Department’s SNAP Online Purchasing Pilot as quickly as possible. We also urge USDA to do everything within its power to expand this program nationwide so SNAP recipients across the country have the option to use online grocery delivery options and reduce their exposure to COVID-19,” they continued. 

Sens. Warner and Kaine have been strong advocates of expanded access to food assistance for families in the Commonwealth amid the COVID-19 outbreak. Last month, the Senators successfully pushed USDA to waive a requirement that needlessly forced children to physically accompany their parent or guardian to a school lunch distribution site in order to receive USDA-reimbursable meals. Additionally, the Senators secured Virginia’s USDA Disaster Household Distribution Program designation, which allows food banks to distribute USDA foods directly to Virginia families in need while limiting interactions between food bank staff, volunteers, and recipients.

A copy of today’s letter is available here and below.

 

The Honorable Sonny Perdue

Secretary

United States Department of Agriculture

1400 Independence Avenue, SW

Washington, DC 20250

Dear Secretary Perdue: 

We write today in support of the Commonwealth of Virginia’s request to participate in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) Online Purchasing Pilot Program. Inclusion in this program will allow Virginia SNAP recipients to use their benefits to purchase groceries online from authorized retailers, reducing the risk of exposure to the coronavirus for thousands of individuals in the Commonwealth.

The current public health crisis has resulted in an unprecedented rise in unemployment and a subsequent increase in demand for our nation’s anti-hunger programs, including SNAP. While USDA has moved swiftly to reduce barriers and increase access to this program during the current public health emergency, most SNAP recipients are only able to utilize these benefits in person at grocery stores or other retailers. This requirement places SNAP recipients at higher risk of infection, as they are not able to utilize various online grocery delivery services that are available for consumers.

The 2014 Farm Bill required USDA to establish a pilot program to test the feasibility of SNAP beneficiaries utilizing their benefits online with authorized retailers. To date, only a small number of states are authorized to participate in this program and have set up systems to allow SNAP recipients in their respective states to use their benefits with online retailers. Due to the current public health emergency, we understand USDA is working to add interested states to the program on a case-by-case basis if they meet the requirements to administer the online program.

To ensure the health and safety of SNAP beneficiaries in the Commonwealth, we urge USDA to work with the Virginia Department of Social Services to approve Virginia’s request to participate in the Department’s SNAP Online Purchasing Pilot as quickly as possible. We also urge USDA to do everything within its power to expand this program nationwide so SNAP recipients across the country have the option to use online grocery delivery options and reduce their exposure to COVID-19.

Thank you for your attention to this matter. We look forward to continuing to work with you to ensure every American has access to healthy and nutritious foods during this public health emergency.

Sincerely,

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WASHINGTON – U.S. Sen. Mark R. Warner joined Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and John Hoeven (R-ND) in writing a letter to Secretary of Agriculture, Sonny Perdue, to urge the Administration to ensure the continuity of our country’s food supply and to support rural areas during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic by providing needed relief to farmers. Klobuchar and Hoeven were joined on the letter by Senators Tina Smith (D-MN), Kevin Cramer (R-ND), and 38 bipartisan colleagues.

“We write to ask that you take action to ensure the continuity of our country’s food supply and support rural areas during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic by providing needed relief to farmers—including by ensuring that the temporary flexibilities on farm loans recently announced by the Farm Service Agency (FSA) are made permanent for the duration of the pandemic and subsequent economic recovery, and also by ensuring adequate and equitable access to credit during this period of market uncertainty,” the senators wrote.

“Americans always depend on our nation’s farmers to grow the food, fuel, and fiber that we all need, but that reliance becomes much more pronounced in times of crisis,” the senators continued.

“To provide additional support for those whose operations are being affected by the coronavirus, we urge you to consider making emergency measures such as deadline extensions, loan payment deferrals, payment forbearance, and a full suspension of all current and pending foreclosure actions effective for the duration of the pandemic and subsequent economic recovery.”

“Such measures are critical to avoiding disruption in the country’s food supply chain.”

In addition to Klobuchar, Hoeven, Smith, and Cramer, the letter was signed by Senators Bob Casey (D-PA), John Thune (R-SD), Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), Steve Daines (R-MT), Dick Durbin (D-IL), John Barrasso (R-WY), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-MS), Mike Enzi (R-WY), John Boozman (R-AR), Michael Bennet (D-CO), Jerry Moran (R-KS), Mike Rounds (R-SD), Angus King (I-ME), Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), Thom Tillis (R-NC), Bill Cassidy (R-LA), Todd Young (R-IN), Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ), Mazie Hirono (D-HI), Brian Schatz (D-HI), Patty Murray (D-WA), Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Doug Jones (D-AL), Deb Fischer (R-NE), Tom Carper (D-DE), Tom Cotton (R-AR), Gary Peters (D-MI), Ron Wyden (D-OR), Jon Tester (D-MT), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Cory Gardner (R-CO), Jim Inhofe (R-OK), Martha McSally (R-AZ), Josh Hawley (R-MO), John Cornyn (R-TX), and Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH).

Full text of the letter can be found HERE and below: 

Dear Secretary Perdue:

We write to ask that you take action to ensure the continuity of our country’s food supply and support rural areas during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic by providing needed relief to farmers—including by ensuring that the temporary flexibilities on farm loans recently announced by the Farm Service Agency (FSA) are made permanent for the duration of the pandemic and subsequent economic recovery, and also by ensuring adequate and equitable access to credit during this period of market uncertainty.

As you know, farmers across the country have faced many challenges in the past several years. The coronavirus pandemic is now causing additional disruptions, driving further declines in market conditions, prices, and export demand, and some experts believe that the consequences of the pandemic could hit rural communities particularly hard. In the past week alone, cattle producers have seen excessive price losses and corn growers have seen biofuel producers suspend purchases due to weaker fuel demand. These conditions have created cash flow challenges as spring planting season quickly approaches. 

Americans always depend on our nation’s farmers to grow the food, fuel, and fiber that we all need, but that reliance becomes much more pronounced in times of crisis. We appreciate the Department’s recognition of the challenges facing farmers and the announcement made by FSA on March 26, 2020, to provide flexibility for those repaying farm loans. These actions will help alleviate cash flow concerns as producers make important business decisions for their operations. We respectfully ask that you provide us with additional information as to how the Department plans to communicate these flexibilities to producers, the criteria that the Department will consider when determining whether a producer receives temporary payment deferral or forbearance, and how long these extensions will be in effect for producers responding to loan servicing actions.

To provide additional support for those whose operations are being affected by the coronavirus, we urge you to consider making emergency measures such as deadline extensions, loan payment deferrals, payment forbearance, and a full suspension of all current and pending foreclosure actions effective for the duration of the pandemic and subsequent economic recovery. The Department should also consider taking additional emergency actions – including the authorization of loan restructuring and loan balance write-downs – that were not included in the March 26 announcement. Such measures are critical to avoiding disruption in the country’s food supply chain.

We also urge you to prioritize and fully leverage existing programs at the Department that are well suited to resolving loan and credit impacts as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, including the Agricultural Mediation Program. This existing federal-state partnership has a proven track record of providing confidential and neutral forums to discuss and resolve loan and credit issues between farmers and their lenders. The program’s caseloads have steadily risen over the past eight years and can be expected to increase as the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic ripple through the rural economy.

We will continue working to provide for additional support for farmers and rural communities to address the ongoing effects of the coronavirus pandemic. In the meantime, we urge you to consider actions that will provide flexibility and temporary relief for borrowers and ensure adequate and equitable access to credit.

Thank you for your continued work on behalf of American farmers and ranchers. We stand ready and willing to work with you to help get farmers through these extraordinary circumstances. 

Sincerely,

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WASHINGTON – Today, U.S. Sens. Mark R. Warner and Tim Kaine (both D-VA) urged the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to waive a requirement that needlessly forces children – including those who are immunocompromised – to physically accompany their parent or guardian to a school lunch distribution site in order to receive USDA-reimbursable meals, therefore putting them at increased risk of contracting COVID-19.

“Current USDA regulations prohibit school districts from distributing meals to families unless the child is present. While we understand the need for this policy under normal circumstances, the current public health emergency demonstrates a clear need for flexibility in food distribution policies to ensure every child has access to a healthy meal,” the Senators wrote in a letter to USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue. “The current policy is burdensome on families and places children at increased risk – especially those who are immunocompromised. This creates a difficult situation for some families who must decide between potentially placing their children at risk of infection and skipping meals.”

According to reports, Virginia families with at-risk children have already been put in the difficult position of choosing whether to seek the food assistance they need, or safeguard the health and safety of their child.

“To meet the nutrition needs of all children during the current public health crisis, we request that USDA establish guidelines for states that remove the in-person requirements for families with at-risk children to reduce unnecessary exposure to COVID-19,” they continued. “Removing this restriction would go a long way to ensuring children in Virginia have access to healthy meals during this public health emergency and are not placed at undue risk.”

In their letter, the Senators also urged USDA to do more to make sure that children in Virginia continue to have access to healthy and nutritious foods during this crisis.

Sens. Warner and Kaine have been strong advocates of expanded access to food assistance for families in the Commonwealth amid the COVID-19 outbreak. Earlier this week, the Senators urged USDA to swiftly approve Virginia’s request to operate a Disaster Household Distribution Program, which would allow food banks to distribute USDA foods directly to Virginia families in need while limiting interactions between food bank staff, volunteers, and recipients. 

A copy of the letter can be found here and below.

 

The Honorable Sonny Perdue 

Secretary

United States Department of Agriculture

1400 Independence Avenue, SW

Washington, DC 20250

Dear Secretary Perdue:

We write today concerning the ongoing public health crisis caused by the spread of COVID-19 and the unprecedented nutrition challenges children in Virginia and across the country are facing. We appreciate all the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is doing to meet this unique challenge, including waiving the congregate meal requirements for child nutrition programs. However, we believe more must be done to ensure children in Virginia continue to have access to healthy and nutritious meals during this state of emergency.

Current USDA regulations prohibit school districts from distributing meals to families unless the child is present. While we understand the need for this policy under normal circumstances, the current public health emergency demonstrates a clear need for flexibility in food distribution policies to ensure every child has access to a healthy meal. The current policy is burdensome on families and places children at increased risk – especially those who are immunocompromised. This creates a difficult situation for some families who must decide between potentially placing their children at risk of infection and skipping meals. 

To meet the nutrition needs of all children during the current public health crisis, we request that USDA establish guidelines for states that remove the in-person requirements for families with at-risk children to reduce unnecessary exposure to COVID-19. Removing this restriction would go a long way to ensuring children in Virginia have access to healthy meals during this public health emergency and are not placed at undue risk.

Again, thank you for your attention to this matter and all you are doing to ensure children have access to healthy and nutritious foods during this challenging time. We look forward to your response.

Sincerely, 

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WASHINGTON – U.S. Sens. Mark R. Warner and Tim Kaine (both D-VA) sent a letter to the Administrator of the Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) urging for swift approval of Virginia’s request to operate a Disaster Household Distribution Program. This designation by the Food and Nutrition Service would allow food banks to distribute USDA foods directly to Virginia’s neediest families while limiting the interactions between food bank staff, volunteers, and recipients during the coronavirus outbreak. 

“In Virginia, many households are out of work due to the ongoing public health emergency. This has created an unprecedented increase in need for food services across the Commonwealth. With little time to prepare, many families have found themselves without the finances to maintain a healthy diet. Unfortunately, congregate food distribution is not an option at this time due to the potential spread of COVID-19. A household distribution program is required to ensure the safe and efficient distribution of food to families in need,” wrote the Senators to Administrator Pam Miller of the Food and Nutrition Service. 

In their letter, the Senators underscore that food banks serve as a vital lifeline for families across the Commonwealth. With the designation of the Disaster Household Distribution Program, the burdensome paperwork that often accompanies a family’s application for food assistance would be removed in an effort to expeditiously distribute food to families in need.

“The Virginia Federation of Foodbanks – working in conjunction with VDACS – will operate the Disaster Household Distribution Program in the Commonwealth. Virginia foodbanks will utilize their existing inventories of USDA foods and donated foods to help supplement families’ nutritional needs. Participants in the program will not be required to complete long and burdensome application forms. The goal will be to limit interaction between staff, volunteers, and recipients to ensure the safe and expeditious delivery of food to families,” they continued.

On March 19, 2020, the Commonwealth submitted a formal request to operate a Household Disaster Distribution Program.

A copy of the letter can be found here and below.

 

Dear Administrator Miller: 

We write today in support of the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Service’s (VDACS) request to operate a Disaster Household Distribution Program in Virginia due to the ongoing public health emergency caused by the spread of COVID-19. Timely approval of this request is needed to ensure families in Virginia have access to healthy foods during this crisis.

In Virginia, many households are out of work due to the ongoing public health emergency. This has created an unprecedented increase in need for food services across the Commonwealth. With little time to prepare, many families have found themselves without the finances to maintain a healthy diet. Unfortunately, congregate food distribution is not an option at this time due to the potential spread of COVID-19. A household distribution program is required to ensure the safe and efficient distribution of food to families in need.

The Virginia Federation of Foodbanks – working in conjunction with VDACS – will operate the Disaster Household Distribution Program in the Commonwealth. Virginia foodbanks will utilize their existing inventories of USDA foods and donated foods to help supplement families’ nutritional needs. Participants in the program will not be required to complete long and burdensome application forms. The goal will be to limit interaction between staff, volunteers, and recipients to ensure the safe and expeditious delivery of food to families.

In order to ensure Virginians in need are able to access food in a safe and timely manner, we urge you approve the Commonwealth’s request to operate a Disaster Household Distribution Program. Thank you for your consideration of this request and all you do to ensure Americans have access to healthy foods.

Sincerely, 

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WASHINGTON – Today, U.S. Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-VA) sent a letter to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to coordinate with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) to enable thousands of federal civil servants, who have experience with rapid emergency response, to assist rural communities that are increasingly overwhelmed by the challenge of responding to the COVID-19 outbreak.

Of Virginia’s 67 confirmed cases, there are growing outbreaks in rural areas including James City County, Farmville, and Hanover. In their letter, the Senators underscore that the USDA and DOI have the relevant experience to best meet the challenges rural communities in Virginia face.

“We write to request your immediate assistance in mobilizing your agencies to offer coordinated support for rural counties, municipalities, and tribal communities as they respond to Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19),” wrote the Senators in their letter to FEMA Administrator Pete Gaynor, USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue, and DOI Secretary David Bernhardt. “Rural communities are working to set up local emergency operation centers to help manage their response, but face challenges with limited staff capacity. Across many of our states, rural counties are experiencing outbreaks and some communities are already overwhelmed with the challenge.”

Federal civil servants across the country at agencies like the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management are located in rural communities and uniquely qualified in emergency management. Many are Incident Command System qualified, have experience mobilizing resources, and coordinating communication and information flow to respond to and contain crises like forest fires. This expertise would bolster the response to coronavirus outbreaks in rural communities across the country.

“We believe these federal professionals are well suited to partner with rural counties and municipalities to enhance staff capacity and support communities facing this public health crisis,” continued the Senators. Therefore, in light of the national emergency declaration, we urge you to take immediate steps to ensure your agencies are working together to make your respective staff and resources available and able to assist with emergency response to COVID-19 across the country.”

In addition to Sen. Warner, the letter was led by Sen. Michel Bennet (D-CO) and signed by Sens. Cory Gardner (R-CO), Senate Agriculture, Nutrition, & Forestry Committee Ranking Member Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), Steve Daines (R-MT), Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Ranking Member Gary Peters (D-MI), Senate Indian Affairs Committee Ranking Member Tom Udall (D-NM), Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ), Kamala Harris (D-CA), Martin Heinrich (D-NM), Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), Bob Casey Jr. (D-PA), Doug Jones (D-Al), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Jeffery Merkley (D-OR), Ron Wyden (D-OR), Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV), Tom Carper (D-DE), Tina Smith (D-MN), Ben Cardin (D-MD), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), and Jon Tester (D-MT).

A copy of the letter is found here and below.

 

Dear Administrator Gaynor, Secretary Perdue, and Secretary Bernhardt:

We write to request your immediate assistance in mobilizing your agencies to offer coordinated support for rural counties, municipalities, and tribal communities as they respond to Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19).

Rural communities are working to set up local emergency operation centers to help manage their response, but face challenges with limited staff capacity. Across many of our states, rural counties are experiencing outbreaks and some communities are already overwhelmed with the challenge.

Throughout rural America, the Department of the Interior and the Department of Agriculture employ thousands of federal civil servants who have the relevant experience to assist with emergency response. For example, the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management employ thousands of staff across the country who are Incident Command System qualified and have experience rapidly responding to forest fires, mobilizing critical resources, and managing information flow in times of crisis. With this expertise available, it is crucial that the Federal Emergency Management Agency provide the authorities necessary and work with both agencies to deliver effective, coordinated assistance to rural communities.

We believe these federal professionals are well suited to partner with rural counties and municipalities to enhance staff capacity and support communities facing this public health crisis. Therefore, in light of the national emergency declaration, we urge you to take immediate steps to ensure your agencies are working together to make your respective staff and resources available and able to assist with emergency response to COVID-19 across the country.

Thank you for considering this request.

Sincerely,

 

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WASHINGTON – U.S. Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-VA) released a statement after the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced its decision to release an additional 35,000 H-2B temporary nonagricultural worker visas – a move that will benefit Virginia’s seafood processing industry, a community largely made up of rural, family-owned operations. This decision follows strong advocacy by Sen. Warner, who has repeatedly urged DHS to release additional visas in order to provide much-needed support to the seafood industry in the Commonwealth.

“I’m relieved to know that with harvest season approaching, Virginia’s family-owned seafood processors will be able to access these additional visas in order to hire more seasonal workers and keep their operations up and running,” said Sen. Warner. “I’ve heard from many seafood businesses how difficult it can be to fulfill labor needs in an industry with such tough and temporary jobs like processing crabs and shucking oysters. I know Virginia businesses still have questions about how the visas will be allocated and how soon they can get workers on the job. I will continue to stay in close contact with both the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Labor and push for these answers. Going forward, we have to work to make sure that our seafood processors no longer have to worry about whether they will be forced to lose supply agreements due to a lack of labor. That’s why I’m going to continue fighting for legislation I introduced to strengthen the H-2B visa program and help seasonal employers better prepare for fluctuations in demand during peak seasons.”

H-2B visas allow employers to temporarily hire nonimmigrant workers to perform nonagricultural labor or services in the United States if U.S. workers are not available, after completing rigorous application and certification process. These visas are critical to the survival of Virginia’s seafood industry – particularly the seafood processing community around the Chesapeake Bay.

According to the Virginia Institute of Marine Science’s last complete study of this kind, the commercial seafood industry in Virginia generates $407.9 million in economic output, which includes all economic activity from harvesters to restaurants. Of that $407.9 million, 62 percent comes from seafood processing/wholesaling firms – the primary companies who rely on the H-2B worker program. Additionally, according to the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, in 2017, Virginia oysters alone had a dockside value of more than $48.9 million dollars, followed by Quahog Clams with more than $47.6 million and Blue Crabs with more than $38 million in dockside value.

Sen. Warner has long advocated for the release of these additional visas. Most recently, he led six of his Senate colleagues in urging DHS to release additional H-2B visas needed to support local seafood businesses. In February, in a bipartisan call, he pressed DHS Secretary Wolf to release the additional Congressionally-authorized H-2B visas, to publicly announce this intent, and to do so as quickly as possible. Additionally, earlier this year, he joined a bipartisan, bicameral letter calling on the Administration to increase the statutory cap of H-2B visas for FY20. He also recently met with DOL Secretary Eugene Scalia to discuss the impact of the H-2B program on Virginia and urge the Secretary to work alongside DHS to release the additional visas in a timely fashion.

Sen. Warner has previously introduced bipartisan legislation to strengthen the H-2B visa program, and has requested an audit to determine the number of unused visas that could be made available to eligible petitioners.

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WASHINGTON – U.S. Sens. Mark R. Warner and Tim Kaine (both D-VA) applauded the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) announcement that 84 counties and cities in Virginia are now eligible to apply for two programs that protect hemp producers’ crops in the 2020 growing season. The Multi-Peril Crop Insurance (MPCI) pilot program provides coverage for hemp producers in case of crop loss due to natural disasters. The Noninsured Crop Disaster Assistance Program (NAP) coverage protects against crop losses where no permanent federal crop insurance program is available. Virginia’s eligibility in the hemp crop insurance pilot program is a direct result of the Senators’ successful push for the Commonwealth’s inclusion. Virginia’s hemp producers may now apply for the programs by the March 16, 2020 deadline. 

“We are pleased that Virginia’s hemp producers will now be able to protect their crops in the event of unforeseen disasters,” said the Senators. “With Virginia positioned to be a top producer of industrial hemp in the country, these additional protections will help hemp growers tap into this thriving industry.”

The 84 counties and cities now eligible are: Accomack, Amelia, Amherst, Appomattox, Augusta, Bath, Bedford, Bland, Botetourt, Brunswick, Buckingham, Campbell, Caroline, Carroll, Charles City, Charlotte, Chesapeake City, Chesterfield, Clarke, Craig, Culpeper, Dinwiddie, Essex, Fairfax, Fauquier, Floyd, Fluvanna, Franklin, Frederick, Gloucester, Goochland, Grayson, Greene, Greensville, Halifax, Hanover, Henrico, Henry, Isle of Wight, James City, King And Queen, King George, King William, Lancaster, Lee, Loudoun, Louisa, Lunenburg, Madison, Mathews, Mecklenburg, Middlesex, Montgomery, Nelson, New Kent, Northampton, Northumberland, Nottoway, Orange, Page, Patrick, Pittsylvania, Powhatan, Prince Edward, Prince George, Prince William, Pulaski, Rappahannock, Richmond, Rockbridge, Rockingham, Shenandoah, Smyth, Southampton, Spotsylvania, Suffolk City, Surry, Sussex, Virginia Beach, Warren, Washington, Westmoreland, Wythe, and York. 

Hemp is distinct from marijuana in that it has a miniscule concentration of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), and thus no narcotic capability. The plant is estimated to be used in more than 25,000 products, including agriculture, textile, recycling, automotive, furniture, food, nutrition, beverage, paper, personal care, and construction products. In 2018, the Senators sponsored a provision in the Farm Bill that removed hemp from the list of controlled substances, allowing Virginia farmers to grow and sell the plant as a commodity and making it eligible for crop insurance. According to recent VDACS data, there are now over 1,100 registered industrial hemp growers across the Commonwealth. 

In December 2019, the Senators backed two bipartisan, bicameral spending bills that provided $16.5 million in new funding to implement the Hemp Production Program. Additionally, in December, they urged USDA to make changes to its proposed hemp regulations to better help Virginia farmers seeking to grow industrial hemp. Recently, the Senators sent a letter to the USDA to expedite its review of Virginia’s Plan to Regulate Hemp Production to provide sufficient time for the General Assembly to update the Commonwealth’s hemp laws and address any potential deficiencies that may arise ahead of the 2020 growing season. 

 

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WASHINGTON – With the General Assembly session scheduled to adjourn in March 2020, U.S. Sens. Mark R. Warner and Tim Kaine (both D-VA) today urged the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to expedite its review of Virginia’s Plan to Regulate Hemp Production, in order to provide sufficient time for the General Assembly to update the Commonwealth’s hemp laws and address any potential deficiencies that may arise following USDA review.

“Industrial hemp presents an unprecedented opportunity for Virginia producers, and it is critically important that state and federal guidelines provide certainty and security to our farmers,” wrote the Senators. “Expeditious review of Virginia’s Plan to Regulate Hemp Production is needed to provide VDACS and other state agencies with the information they need to run an effective hemp program for the 2020 growing season.”

"Virginia is poised to be a top producer of industrial hemp in the country. In 2019, the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (VDACS) registered over 1,200 growers to produce approximately 2,200 acres of industrial hemp. We expect these figures to grow substantially in 2020 and beyond,” they continued. “If Virginia’s Hemp Production Plan is not processed in a timely manner, we are concerned this could cause complications for the Commonwealth’s hemp program and our producers, who are eager to take advantage of this exciting opportunity.”

Hemp is distinct from marijuana in that it has a miniscule concentration of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), and thus no narcotic capability. The plant is estimated to be used in more than 25,000 products, including agriculture, textile, recycling, automotive, furniture, food, nutrition, beverage, paper, personal care, and construction products.

Sens. Warner and Kaine have been strong supporters of hemp as an agricultural commodity. In 2018, the Senators sponsored a provision in the Farm Bill that removed hemp from the list of controlled substances, allowing Virginia farmers to grow and sell the plant as a commodity. More recently in September 2019, Sens. Warner and Kaine successfully secured Virginia’s inclusion in a pilot to develop a crop insurance program for industrial hemp. In December 2019, the Senators backed two bipartisan, bicameral spending bills that provided $16.5 million in new funding to implement the Hemp Production Program. Additionally, in December, they urged USDA to make changes to its proposed hemp regulations to better help Virginia farmers seeking to grow industrial hemp.

A copy of the letter is available here and below.

 

Mr. Bruce Summers

Administrator

United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) - Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS)

1400 Independence Ave SW

Washington, DC 20228

Dear Mr. Summers:

We write today concerning the Commonwealth of Virginia’s recent submission of its Plan to Regulate Hemp Production. In the interest of ensuring the success of Virginia’s burgeoning hemp industry, we encourage USDA to review the Commonwealth’s plan expeditiously to provide growers across Virginia the certainty they require entering the 2020 growing season.

Virginia is poised to be a top producer of industrial hemp in the country. In 2019, the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (VDACS) registered over 1,200 growers to produce approximately 2,200 acres of industrial hemp. We expect these figures to grow substantially in 2020 and beyond. Industrial hemp presents an unprecedented opportunity for Virginia producers, and it is critically important that state and federal guidelines provide certainty and security to our farmers.

Expeditious review of Virginia’s Plan to Regulate Hemp Production is needed to provide VDACS and other state agencies with the information they need to run an effective hemp program for the 2020 growing season. In addition, the Virginia General Assembly is currently in session, and if any deficiencies that require legislative updates are found in the Commonwealth’s plan, a quick review and response would be helpful to guide the legislature. Virginia’s General Assembly is scheduled to adjourn in early March 2020, which provides a relatively narrow window of opportunity for the legislature to address any potential deficiencies. If Virginia’s Hemp Production Plan is not processed in a timely manner, we are concerned this could cause complications for the Commonwealth’s hemp program and our producers, who are eager to take advantage of this exciting opportunity.

Thank you for your attention to this matter. We look forward to continuing to work with you to ensure the development of a viable U.S. Domestic Hemp Production Program. Please let us know if we can be of assistance moving forward.

Sincerely,

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WASHINGTON – U.S. Sens. Mark R. Warner and Tim Kaine (both D-VA) announced $1,549,891 in federal funding for the University of Virginia (UVA) and Virginia Tech to improve resources for the U.S. agricultural industry and rural communities. This funding was awarded through the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)’s Food and Agriculture Cyberinformatics and Tools (FACT) Initiative, which focuses on data-driven solutions to address problems facing the agricultural industry.

“We’re pleased to announce this funding to focus on strengthening our country’s agricultural industry and lifting up rural communities,” said the Senators. “Agriculture is a significant part of Virginia’s economy, and we’re excited to see UVA and Virginia Tech receive significant investments to boost this critical industry.”

The funding will be awarded as below:

  • $999,975 for the University of Virginia to support a 10-week program for undergraduate and graduate students, faculty, and professionals to learn how to use data science to better address agricultural, economic, and social issues facing rural America. The funding will help the program create a workforce trained in analytics so they can better utilize data to strengthen their communities.
  •  $499,952 for the University of Virginia to better understand America’s agricultural commodity flows and their role in the spread of invasive species, which is important for food security and economic stability. This project will help provide policy makers with guidance to better address vulnerabilities in food systems.
  • $49,964 for Virginia Tech to safeguard the agriculture and food bioeconomy from cyber threats. The bioeconomy – innovation in biological sciences to boost economic activity – is estimated at approximately 25% of U.S. GDP.

According to the USDA, “FACT focuses on data science to enable systems and communities to effectively utilize data, improve resource management, and integrate new technologies and approaches to further U.S. food and agriculture enterprises. Projects funded through FACT will work to examine the value of data for small and large farmers, agricultural and food industries, and gain an understanding of how data can impact the agricultural supply chain, reduce food waste and loss, improve consumer health, environmental and natural resource management, affect the structure of U.S. food and agriculture sectors, and increase U.S. competitiveness.”

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WASHINGTON – Today, U.S. Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-VA), member of the Senate Committee on Finance, addressed the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) before voting in favor of the deal during a Finance Committee vote. In his opening remarks, Sen. Warner expressed optimism for the deal’s positive impact on Virginia’s farmers, but noted his concern regarding the Trump Administration’s erratic approach to trade, and the impact that these strained interactions could have on our nation’s relationship with key allies and partners abroad.

“I’m optimistic that this trade agreement will help American farmers, ports, manufacturers, retailers, and workers. As others have pointed out, the deal addresses issues like digital trade, that NAFTA couldn’t fully anticipate and decreases market barriers to agricultural products that have been huge points of concern for Virginia farmers,” said Sen. Warner in the committee hearing. “Overall, I’m hopeful that this agreement will provide the consistency and stability that the business community needs. At the same time, I worry that the process that led us to this point may result in reduced U.S. credibility and trust from our allies and closest trading partners. Throughout the negotiation process, the President’s efforts to levy tariffs on Canada and Mexico, and to make repeated threats to withdraw from NAFTA or to heedlessly close the border with Mexico, have exemplified the troubling and erratic approach to trade issues that we’ve seen from the Administration.”

He continued, “Alienating our closest allies with the misuse of national security tariffs is counterproductive and endangers American security. That is why Senator Toomey and I have offered the Bicameral Trade Authority Act, to curb abuses of 232 authority. I’m hopeful that with ratification of this deal will offer an opportunity for this committee to reexamine those efforts in a bipartisan fashion.”

The United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement was officially signed by the three participating countries on November 30th, 2018. In the wake of pressure from Democrats, led by Speaker Pelosi, the Trump Administration announced on December 9th the addition of new labor protections and enforcement provisions. Soon after, Sen. Warner announced his support of the USMCA, which intends to replace the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). The USMCA, which passed the House of Representatives by a 385-41 vote, awaits consideration in the Senate.

 

Sen. Warner’s remarks are available below:

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

As we all know, strong trading relationships improve our nation’s economy. I’m optimistic that this trade agreement will help American farmers, ports, manufacturers, retailers, and workers. As others have pointed out, the deal addresses issues like digital trade, that NAFTA couldn’t fully anticipate and decreases market barriers to agricultural products that have been huge points of concern for Virginia farmers.

I want to add congratulations to Ranking Member Wyden, Senator Brown and our House colleagues, because now this agreement finally includes strong labor protections to ensure that companies in our partner nations are held accountable and that American workers can compete on a level playing field.

Overall, I’m hopeful that this agreement will provide the consistency and stability that the business community needs.

At the same time, I worry that the process that led us to this point may result in reduced U.S. credibility and trust from our allies and closest trading partners. Throughout the negotiation process, the President’s efforts to levy tariffs on Canada and Mexico, and to make repeated threats to withdraw from NAFTA or to heedlessly close the border with Mexico, have exemplified the troubling and erratic approach to trade issues that we’ve seen from the Administration.

Our trade relationships are a key form of diplomacy, allowing us to increase U.S. influence abroad and deepen our relationships with foreign partners in ways that benefit not just American prosperity but U.S. security and leadership. Alienating our closest allies with the misuse of national security tariffs is counterproductive and endangers American security. That is why Senator Toomey and I have offered the Bicameral Trade Authority Act, to curb abuses of 232 authority. I’m hopeful that with ratification of this deal will offer an opportunity for this committee to reexamine those efforts in a bipartisan fashion.

Finally, and I made an agreement with the ranking member not to raise this issue during these considerations but I do want to take note that I have serious concerns with the inclusion of safe harbor language modeled on section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. Congress is beginning, at this point, an important bipartisan debate about whether section 230 is working as intended. And many, including many prominent civil rights groups, believe that section 230 has allowed internet intermediaries to ignore misuse of their platforms by bad actors. This is an issue that I think needs our attention and that I hope we can revisit in a bipartisan way. Again, I commend everybody who worked on this.

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WASHINGTON – U.S. Sens. Mark R. Warner and Tim Kaine (both D-VA) wrote to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue to encourage the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to make changes to its proposed hemp regulations to better help Virginia farmers seeking to grow industrial hemp. Responding to concerns raised by farmers in Virginia, the Senators encouraged the Department to make several specific changes to draft plans regulating the U.S. Domestic Hemp Production Program, which was established by Congress as part of the 2018 Farm Bill.

“We appreciate USDA’s commitment to developing a viable U.S. Domestic Hemp Production Program for hemp producers in Virginia and across the country. We look forward to working with you to ensure Virginia hemp growers are able to take full advantage of this opportunity,” the Senators wrote in a letter to Secretary Perdue.

Among the issues the Senators raised in their letter:

  • USDA’s interim final rule requires growers to test hemp plants within 15 days of anticipated harvest. The Senators urged USDA to adopt a more reasonable testing timeframe of 30 days to reduce burdens to hemp producers and reduce unnecessary delays in getting products to market.
  • USDA’s interim final rules requires that hemp plant testing must be conducted by a Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA)-registered laboratory, but Virginia has only a small number of DEA-registered labs. The Senators urged USDA to remove the requirement that testing can only occur at DEA-registered labs and allow testing to be conducted at independent testing labs that meet USDA standards.
  • USDA’s interim final rule establishes a negligence threshold for hemp at 0.5% delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). If a grower is found to have hemp with a THC level above 0.5% they could face legal repercussions under the current guidelines. The Senators urged USDA to raise the threshold to 1.0% THC before a grower is subject to penalties, since it is possible hemp growers could take all the necessary steps and precautions to produce hemp according to the guidelines and still produce hemp plants that exceed the 0.5% THC concentration due to factors out of their control. The Senators also urged USDA to examine mediation options to deal with growers who accidentally exceed the THC threshold.
  • The Senators also asked USDA to offer “maximum flexibility” to states like Virginia when it comes to implementing industrial hemp production, noting that Virginia is in the process of developing a State Action Plan to adhere to the 2018 Farm Bill and USDA rulemaking, but that the General Assembly in Virginia, like many states, is only in session for a short period, and it is possible that USDA will issue a final rule after the General Assembly has already completed its 2020 session.

Sens. Warner and Kaine championed the legislation to legalize the production of industrial hemp, a crop which is already cultivated for research purposes in Virginia. Hemp is distinct from marijuana in that it has a miniscule concentration of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), and thus no narcotic capability. The plant is estimated to be used in more than 25,000 products spanning agriculture, textiles, recycling, automotive, furniture, food, nutrition, beverages, paper, construction materials, and personal care. In September, Warner and Kaine successfully secured Virginia’s inclusion in a pilot to develop a crop insurance program for industrial hemp.  

The full text of the letter appears below. A copy of the letter is available here.

 

The Honorable Sonny Perdue

Secretary

United States Department of Agriculture

1400 Independence Avenue, SW

Washington, DC 20250

Dear Secretary Perdue:

We write today to provide comments in response to the issuance of the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) interim final rule for the U.S. Domestic Hemp Production Program. While we applaud USDA for its work in developing this rule in a timely manner, we are concerned about some of the effects this interim final rule would have on hemp production in the Commonwealth of Virginia.

Virginia has taken full advantage of recent changes in federal law to become a national leader in industrial hemp research and production. As of November 2019, the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (VDACS) has registered 1,183 industrial hemp growers, 262 processors, and 117 dealers. Nearly 2,200 acres of industrial hemp were planted in the Commonwealth in 2019. In addition, VDACS projects that Virginia growers could plant up to 15,000 acres of hemp during the 2020 growing season. Industrial hemp presents an incredible opportunity for Virginia farmers, and it is important that guidelines and regulations for the hemp industry do not unduly burden our growers.

Following, in no particular order, are our concerns regarding the interim final rule. We appreciate your consideration of these concerns and look forward to working with you as USDA finalizes its U.S. Domestic Hemp Production Program.

  • USDA’s interim final rule requires growers to test hemp plants within 15 days of anticipated harvest. We are concerned that a 15-day testing window will not provide adequate time for growers to test each crop, submit the testing sample, and receive a response. A 15-day window would be incredibly burdensome for Virginia hemp producers and would lead to unnecessary delays in getting products to market. We believe a 30-day window would provide a more reasonable testing timeframe that would be less burdensome on producers and testing facilities.
  • USDA’s interim final rule requires that hemp plant testing must be conducted by a Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA)-registered laboratory. Currently, Virginia only has very limited number of DEA-registered labs. With the projected increase in hemp production in Virginia and the proposed 15-day turnaround time for testing, it will be incredibly difficult for a small number of DEA-registered labs to meet these requirements during harvesting season. A backlog at testing facilities could negatively impact Virginia growers, processors, and dealers. We recommend that USDA remove the requirement that testing can only occur at DEA-registered labs and allow testing to be conducted at independent testing labs that meet USDA standards.
  • The interim final rule establishes a negligence threshold for hemp at 0.5% delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). If a grower is found to have hemp with a THC level above 0.5% they could face legal repercussions under the current guidelines. We are concerned that the 0.5% THC threshold is arbitrary and far too low considering THC levels can vary widely depending on a number of factors including weather and geography. Hemp growers could take all the necessary steps and precautions to produce hemp according to the guidelines and still produce hemp plants that exceed the 0.5% THC concentration due to factors out of their control. We believe this threshold should be raised to at least 1.0% THC before a grower is subject to negligent violation to protect individuals who follow regulations and best practices. We also encourage USDA to examine mediation options to deal with growers who accidentally exceed the THC threshold.
  • Finally, as USDA begins to implement a final rule we ask that the agency consider how implementation impacts individual states. Many states, including Virginia, are in the process of developing State Action Plans that adhere to the 2018 Farm Bill and USDA rulemaking. However, the Virginia General Assembly, along with many state legislatures, are only in session for a short period. Once USDA implements its final rule, the Virginia General Assembly will need to pass legislation aligning its hemp program with USDA’s regulations. It is possible that USDA will issue the final rule after the Virginia General Assembly has completed its 2020 session. We ask that USDA consider these timelines and provide maximum flexibility to states as they prepare to implement their State Action Plans.

Again, thank you for your careful consideration of these concerns. We appreciate USDA’s commitment to developing a viable U.S. Domestic Hemp Production Program for hemp producers in Virginia and across the country. We look forward to working with you to ensure Virginia hemp growers are able to take full advantage of this opportunity.

Sincerely,

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WASHINGTON – U.S. Sens. Mark R. Warner and Tim Kaine (both D-VA) today applauded the news that the Chinese government will lift the import ban on U.S. poultry products that has been in place since 2015, effective immediately.

“For years, we have raised concerns about China’s unfair ban on U.S. poultry products and today’s announcement that the ban will be lifted, effective immediately, is great news for Virginia poultry producers,” said the Senators. “While we’re pleased by today’s news that this unreasonable and arbitrary policy will be reversed, we remain deeply concerned that the Trump Administration still appears to lack a comprehensive strategy to deal with China’s unfair trade practices and the long-term threats to U.S. jobs and national security posed by China’s rampant intellectual property theft and economic espionage. We strongly urge the President not to lose sight of those important goals, or the pain the Administration’s tariffs continue to cause for many of Virginia’s businesses, workers and consumers.”

In July 2017, Sen. Warner and Sen. Kaine sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, urging the Trump Administration to push the Chinese government to end its ban on the sale of American poultry products. In February of this year, Sen. Warner and eight other bipartisan Senators sent a letter to U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, calling on the Trump Administration to reach a trade agreement with China lifting the ban on U.S. poultry and other barriers to U.S. agriculture products while also addressing issues such as Chinese intellectual property theft, forced technology transfer, and unfair subsidies for state-owned enterprises.

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