Harrisburg – At the request of state Senators Judy Schwank (D- Berks) and Maria Collett (D- Bucks/Montgomery), the Senate Democratic Policy Committee held a virtual public hearing Thursday on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Pennsylvania’s food supply chain.
Lawmakers discussed ways the legislature can assist struggling businesses through this difficult time and how to prevent future food chain issues.
“Agriculture is integral to Pennsylvania economics and society,” said Schwank, Democratic chair of the Senate Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee. “The COVID-19 pandemic has deeply affected our farmers, businesses, and consumers across the state. We need to make sure that in the event of another emergency, our supply chain is better prepared to handle disruptions.”
The COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic triggered a statewide shutdown order, closing all nonessential businesses across the state. This led to an exponential increase in the number of people staying home who were buying more food from grocery stores. Many stocked up in case they needed to self-quarantine for two weeks because they or someone in their house were exposed to COVID-19.
On the other side of the supply chain, suppliers were harmed through a significant drop off in business with restaurants, schools and large-scale institutions.
The Reading Eagle reported that farmers were forced to dump milk, throw out fresh eggs, and let produce rot because the food supply chain had shifted so rapidly. They claim there was simply nowhere for the food to go.
“A number of businesses in my district, from meat producers to commercial equipment suppliers to linen services — have shared stories about the far reaching ripple effects of disruptions in the food chain — and that is one of the main reasons I fought for this hearing today,” Collett said. “Protecting our frontline workers and our most vulnerable communities is of the utmost importance as we continue to fight this pandemic, but we also need to make sure that we take this time to craft solutions to address the many other issues that this virus has caused.”
Benjamin Davies, accompanied by his wife Karah, of Wild Fox Farms spoke to their experience of continuing the legacy of their family farm in Pennsylvania, “Taking what we have observed during the Covid-19 Pandemic and doubling down on what worked is the only way forward. Focusing on building thriving local supply chains and building regional self-reliance will create resilience in the long term.”
Meat-packaging plants were also temporarily shut down in Pennsylvania and across the country due to the spread of COVID-19 among workers, causing further disruptions in the food supply chain. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that despite known outbreaks among workers at meat-packaging plants, Pennsylvania did not release specific data on workers who contracted COVID-19 at the plants. The Inquirer also reports that Latino workers, who primarily make up the workforce of these plants, had a higher exposure to COVID-19.
“We are supportive of efforts to direct personal protective gear to workers employed in food processing plants, such as House Bill 2435, that would create a grant program that assist these businesses for the purchase of PPE,” Darrin Youker, Director of State Government Affairs at the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau said.
Youker also said that the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau also supports the ‘Very Small Meat Processing Grants’, which allowed additional meat processing plants to open or expand. He said that the additional processing capacity in Pennsylvania will further secure the supply chain for Pennsylvania farmers, and ultimately benefit consumers.
The stay-at-home order resulted in many people losing their jobs and struggling with unexpected losses in income and financial security. The order also closed all schools, so children receiving subsidized meals lost access to consistent healthy meals. Food banks and schools across the state had to rapidly adjust their food distribution methods and respond to an explosive increase in need.
The PA Secretary of Agriculture Russell Redding said that projections by Feeding America show percentage of Pennsylvanians experiencing hunger will rise from 10.9% in 2018 to 15.9% in 2020. He said that there are projections that child hunger in Pennsylvania will increase from 15.1% in 2018 to 23.8% in 2020.
The state Department of Agriculture consequently released more information and resources for those struggling with hunger.
“As counties move into stages of reopening, the department remains dedicated to providing guidance, resources, and support to the agriculture community. One area that remains a critical focus is workforce,” Redding said. He also said that the Wolf Administration will continue to provide grants for PPE those within the food supply chain.
“It is incredibly important that as we continue to put people back to work so they can support themselves and their families,” said Sen. Lisa Boscola (D- Lehigh/Northampton), chair of the Senate Democratic Policy Committee. “We need to make sure workers are safe and supported as they face challenges of entering the ‘new normal’ of the post-COVID world.”
The following testified at Thursday’s hearing:
- Russell C. Redding, Secretary, Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture
- Caryn Long Earl, Director, Bureau of Food Distribution, Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture
- Sheri Morris, Assistant Director of Food Distribution and Laboratory Services, Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture
- Steve Tracey, Professor, Executive Director of the Center for Supply Chain Research, Penn State University, Smeal College of Business
- Patrick Drohan, Professor of Pedology and Creator of the Pennsylvania Agriculture Resilience Network, Penn State University
- Brad Clemens, Senior Vice President, Clemens Food Group
- Darrin Youker, Director, State Government Affairs, Pennsylvania Farm Bureau
- Ben and Karah Davies, Wild Fox Farm, Barto, Pennsylvania
Senators Lindsey Williams (D- Allegheny), Pam Iovino (D- Allegehney/Washington), Maria Collett (D- Bucks/Montgomery) Shariff Street (D-Philadelphia), Katie Muth (D- Berks/Montgomery/Chester) John Blake (D- Lackawanna/Luzerne/Monroe), and Tim Kearney (D- Chester/Delaware) also attended this hearing.
The Senate Democratic Policy Committee has already hosted a number of hearings related to COVID-19, including the impact on nursing and veterans homes, the disproportionate effect on the African American Community, pandemic-related funding for childcare centers, and assuring that protective equipment and other support is accessible for all frontline workers.
A full recording of this hearing, and links to all previous hearings, is available at senatorboscola.com/policy.