As the owner of a small farm, I’m frequently amazed at how little Washington understands the work that goes into putting food on our plates, but coronavirus has made it impossible to ignore the labor of grocery store employees, farmers, processors and food producers. Our nation is collectively acknowledging what’s always been true: Those who grow, sell and serve our food are essential workers, and we should treat them as such.

From the beginning of this crisis, President Trump has shirked his responsibilities, leaving America’s governors to respond to the pandemic without consistent guidance or coordination. However, there are many policies the states simply cannot change without the federal government’s cooperation. One of them is improving our national food supply chain and another is protecting the workers who’ve been deemed essential.

President Trump recently invoked the Defense Protection Act to send meatpackers back to cramped processing lines without protective gear. The Defense Production Act is an executive authority used to direct private companies to meet our national defense needs during wartime. The president’s failure to safeguard their health puts their lives and the surrounding community in danger. That’s why I’ve joined a number of my House colleagues in calling for an essential workers bill of rights. The adoption of a worker bill of rights would ensure those who are keeping us safe, fed and healthy have access to safety protections, hazard pay and paid sick, family and medical leave, to name just a few.

While it’s true that the shuttering of big processing plants has caused a strain on our national meat supply chain, it didn’t need to be this way. Instead of relying solely on industrial-scale meat plants where employees are working on a high-speed processing line without any distance between them, we could make locally raised livestock processing more widely available. Unfortunately our current federal regulations are designed for that large industry model, and under the guise of safety, don’t allow for many options.

Before the first case of COVID-19 was found in the United States, I introduced legislation to make it easier for small farms and ranches to sell their locally raised meat. My bill, the bipartisan PRIME (Processing Revival and Intrastate Meat Exemption) Act, had strong merits before this crisis hit, and COVID-19 has only underscored the fragility of relying on a national network to move food around the country rather than being able to locally source food.

Under federal law, in order for a farmer or rancher to sell individual cuts of locally raised meats they must first send their animals to one of a limited number of U.S. Department of Agriculture-inspected slaughterhouses. These USDA slaughterhouses are sometimes hundreds of miles away and there are far too few of them. In Maine, there are very few federally inspected processing facilities – with only one USDA poultry plant in the entire state. The PRIME Act would change federal regulations to make it easier to process meat locally, helping small farmers stay afloat during this economic crisis while simultaneously keeping food on our plates. This bill would shift more safety oversight to states, some of which already have equally rigorous inspection practices, and break down barriers for small farms looking to sell their product.

If we enact simple legislation like the PRIME Act at the federal level, small farms can play a bigger role in helping the country navigate our meat shortage and food insecurity crisis. It’s a disgrace to policymakers that farmers are forced to dump milk or compost their crops while food banks are overrun with need. In future COVID-19 relief packages, I’ve urged congressional leaders to include changes that will give Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program beneficiaries and food banks greater flexibility to procure locally produced food. These common-sense fixes would expand the market for local farms and food producers who’ve not had the privilege of receiving funds from the Trump administration’s farm trade bailouts and feed hungry Americans. It’s a win-win.

It’s time for Congress to recognize not only the importance of putting a meal on the table, but also the work it takes to get food from the field to the fridge. This pandemic has laid bare a food system badly in need of reform and an urgency to fix it.


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