USDA calls back FSA staff to ease shutdown pressure on farmers, but other services remain in limbo

By Elizabeth Crawford

- Last updated on GMT

Source: Getty / Jevtic
Source: Getty / Jevtic

Related tags shutdown Kraft heinz Usda SNAP

This morning more than 9,700 federal employees who work for the Farm Services Agency will return to work without pay at least part time for the duration of the partial government shutdown, which is now in its 33rd day and by far the longest in US history.

Returning FSA staff across the nation will focus on “administrative services, which are critical for farmers and ranchers,”​ including those centered on some loans, emergency services and tax aid, according to the US Department of Agriculture, which oversees FSA.

“We have been working to alleviate the effects of the lapse in federal funding as best we can, and we are happy to announce the reopening of FSA offices for certain services. The FSA provides vital support for farmers and ranchers and they count on those services being available. We want to offer as much assistance as possible until the partial government shutdown is resolved,”​ US Sec. of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said in a statement Jan. 22.

Among the services now available are assistance with the market facilitation program, marketing assistance loans, release of collateral warehouse receipts, direct and guaranteed farm operation loans and emergency loans, servicing for existing conservation reserve program contracts, sugar price support loans, dairy margin protection program, agriculture risk coverage and price loss coverage, livestock forage disaster, emergency assistance livestock, honey bee and farm-raised fish programs, livestock indemnity program, the noninsured crop disaster assistance program, the tree assistance program and remaining wildfires and hurricanes indemnity program payments for applications already processed.

The expansion of service is possible after USDA worked with the Office of Management and Budget to review the agency’s funding to identify programs “where the suspension of the activity associated with these accounts would significantly damage or prevent the execution of the terms of the underlying statutory provision,”​ according to USDA.

The agency did not find funding to bring back furloughed employees to cover the new conservation reserve program contracts, new direct and guaranteed farm ownership loans, farm storage facility loans, new or in-process wildfire and hurricane indemnity program applications, the emergency conservation program, the emergency forest rehabilitation program, the biomass crop assistance program or the grassroots source water protection program, among others.

While the agency has a laundry list of tasks to complete, staff will not return full time. Rather they will be available from 8 am to 4:30 pm for two weeks beginning Jan. 28, after which point the offices will be open only on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays “if needed”​ to provide additional administrative services.

Protein is ‘safe’

The same day that Perdue announced the return of FSA staff to cover expanded services, he also reassured Americans in a video posted on Twitter that their protein is “safe”​ to consume.

“I am happy to tell all Americans today that because of our hard food safety inspectors across America your chicken, you pork, your beef – all of that protein that they are inspecting is safe. They have been on the job. They are on the job. They are staying on the job. And to them I want to say thank you. You guys are great and I really appreciate so much your efforts to keep our public safe. You are the front line defense,” ​Perdue said.

Several commenters on Twitter responded by echoing Perdue’s thanks, but several others mocked his thanks saying federal employees need more than gratitude, they need paychecks.

Perdue reminded the nation, and returning FSA employees, that they will receive back pay once the government reopens.

Settling in for the long haul?

How long until that happens, though, remains unclear as the Trump Administration this week asked for a list of programs that would be hurt if the shutdown lasts into March.

Among those that likely will suffer a painful blow if additional immediate funding is not provided is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, previously known as food stamps. The government announced earlier this month that it would cover SNAP benefits through the end of February with a special early disbursement, but it could not guarantee coverage in March.

If funding lapses, nonprofit and corporate giving programs will feel additional pressure to help feed the hungry. Many programs already are struggling to feed furloughed government employees who cannot afford groceries after going without pay for nearly a month.

Among the services currently catering to furloughed federal employees and contractors impacted by the partial shutdown is a free pop-up grocery store in Washington, DC, created by Kraft Heinz.

In an open letter that ran in the Jan. 20 edition of The Washington Post, Kraft said it would extend the opening of the free grocery store to continue to give bags of Kraft products to families impacted by the partial shutdown. It also called on other brands to help fill “the need – and extra shelves”​ at the store.

“We are also accelerating more than 1 million meals in Kraft products as part of our annual donation to Feeding America, making sure local food banks are stocked across the country. If you can help us make that donation even bigger, we’d welcome it,”​ Kraft said in the letter.

It added that the store and donations “isn’t about politics,”​ but rather about “the families who have supported our brands, and the part we can play in making sure dinner stays business as usual.”

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