Written by Minnie Che, FLPC research assistant
A $1.9 trillion stimulus package, called the American Rescue Plan, has been passed by Congress and signed into law by President Biden. Even before passage of this legislation, there were many changes afoot in the food and agricultural response to COVID-19. Upon taking office, President Biden increased the funding for Pandemic Electronic Benefits Transfer (P-EBT) by 15% in order to combat child food insecurity during a time when many schools are still remote. He also signed an order requesting the USDA to increase SNAP benefits, noting that the boost from the December stimulus bill was not enough. Additionally, Biden signed an executive order that directs the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to cover the entire cost for states and local governments to partner with restaurants and nonprofits to prepare meals for soup kitchens and food pantries, rather than requiring the local government to provide matching funding, as was done earlier in pandemic.
Despite swift executive actions, President Biden acknowledged that more must be done to mitigate the economic crisis and worked with Congress to enact a $1.9 trillion plan that includes $360 billion for state, local and tribal governments and $130 billion to schools and $40 billion to universities. The bill allocates $47 billion to FEMA to use towards vaccine distribution, $50 billion for testing and tracing, and an additional $26 billion for other distribution chains for the vaccine and medical supplies. It also provides $10.4 billion for agriculture.
Direct payment, unemployment benefits, and tax credits
One key aspect of the American Rescue Plan was the inclusion of new stimulus checks, which will deliver $1,400 directly to taxpayers who make $75,000 or less annually – or $112,500 for single parents and $150,000 for couples. Payments will phase out for salaries starting at $80,000 for individuals and $160,000 for couples filing jointly.
The bill will also extend weekly unemployment benefits of $300 through September 6, 2021, and the first $10,200 of unemployment payments from 2020 would be tax-free for individuals making less than $150,000.
$143 billion will be distributed to expand three tax credits: the child tax credit, the earned-income tax credit, and the child and dependent care tax credit.
With $1.15 billion allotted, the American Rescue Plan will continue the 15% increase in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits (established in the Consolidated Appropriations Act) through September of this year. This is a provision that the Food Law and Policy Clinic (FLPC) advocated for in its federal policy recommendations published May of 2020. SNAP helps both low-income households mitigate food insecurity and fuels the economy. Approximately 40% of the additional benefits will go to households earning below 50% of the federal poverty line, with nearly ⅔ of those households having children. $25 million will go to expand the ability for vendors to participate in SNAP online sales and improve its technological implementation. This provision was adopted from the Expanding SNAP Options Act, on which the FLPC assisted and supported to implement online SNAP to all states and expand retailers authorized to accept SNAP online. 
$880 million is provided for investment in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). WIC has been unable to reach all eligible populations of women and children because of its lack of modernization, such as online applications or video appointments. Funds invested in WIC will go towards expanding the program’s reach for all those who qualify. The USDA secretary has the authority to temporarily increase the value of cash vouchers, used for WIC participants to purchase supplemental fruits and vegetables, up to $35 per month for a four-month period during the pandemic.
P-EBT will get $5 billion to maintain and expand its program, which has helped families provide breakfast and lunch for children who would have received meals at school but are currently not, due to remote learning.
Low-income seniors will be provided with $37 million for the Commodity Supplemental Food Program, with a total of $1.4 billion in funding going towards programs under the Older Americans Act, which includes nutrition programs, community-based support programs, and the National Family Caregiver Support Program.
Another $1 billion will be directed toward U.S. territories to fund additional nutrition assistance. Territories like Puerto Rico, American Samoa, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands receive a capped block grant (called the Nutritional Assistance Program, or NAP) rather than SNAP, putting low-income residents at greater risk during the pandemic if the programs are unable to expand with increased need.
The act also allots $500 million for rural healthcare efforts, which includes vaccine distribution and nutrition assistance for vulnerable individuals.
The USDA will be provided $3.6 billion to go towards supporting food supply chains that have been impacted by the pandemic, with language similar to that included in the Consolidated Appropriations Act that went to support ongoing operations of the Farmers to Families Food Box program. Other agricultural and food chain assistance include $300 million for monitoring efforts of SARS-CoV-2 in animals and $100 million to reduce fees associated with federal inspections of small meat, poultry, and egg processing facilities.
One of the most notable provisions is that $4 billion will go towards providing debt relief, grants, training, and other forms of land assistance to socially-disadvantaged farmers, a quarter of whom are Black. A socially disadvantaged farmer is one who has been subjected to racial or ethnic prejudices because of their identity as a member of a group without regard to their individual qualities. Due to systemic racism and discrimination in regards to credit and loans, Black farmers have lost more than 12 million acres of farmland, mainly since the 1950s. Some are touting this as the most significant piece of legislation for black land ownership in the country. An additional $1 billion will be directed towards land grant institutions and other organizations that give assistance to farmers of color.
Industry and Restaurants
The bill includes $7.25 billion for small-business loans under the Paycheck Protection Program. It also supports restaurants specifically through $25 billion allotted to the Small Business Administration to fund a new grant program for food and beverage establishments. Potential grants go up to $10 million per institution and $5 million per physical location, limited to chains with a maximum of 20 locations. Of those funds, $5 billion is set aside to target businesses with less than $500,000 in revenue in 2019, and there is another $1.25 billion going towards the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant.
What amendments did not make it in the final bill?
The Senate parliamentarian did not approve the efforts to use the reconciliation process for inclusion of the minimum wage increase to $15 by 2025. Without being allowed to use reconciliation to pass this provision, Democrats would have needed 60 votes to pass the amendment. It was thus excluded from the Senate bill altogether. Alternatives were also proposed, including Sen. Josh Hawley’s three-year program, funded by taxpayer dollars, where those making below $16.50 per hour would receive a refundable tax credit worth 50% of the difference.
Other provisions recommended in FLPC’s policy brief but that were not enacted in this relief plan include expanding SNAP vendors to include restaurants to benefit both SNAP participants and bring economic relief to restaurant owners. To further this, Congress would need to modify the definition of food and food service establishments. FLPC also recommended that Congress temporarily remove the prohibition against using SNAP benefits for “hot foods or hot food products ready for immediate consumption” in 7 U.S.C. 2012(k) to promote greater food security. FLPC’s policy brief advocated for expanding the enhanced tax deduction for food donation to include transportation costs associated with food donations, offering tax credit for farmers donating food, and expanding liability protection for food donations. Eliminating the “no charge” requirement for liability protection for donated foods delivered by non-profits would help these organizations reinvest needed funds back into their mission.
The FLPC brief highlighted a need to protect farmworkers and other food workers delivering essential services. Some of its recommendations towards achieving this goal that were not included in the latest stimulus package included providing undocumented immigrants with all the benefits accorded by Congress in response to Covid-19 and a pathway to citizenship. Additionally, workers should be paid short-term sick leave and long-term family and medical leave regardless of status. And lastly, the brief also suggested that Congress should support employers paying essential food workers a premium wage or hazard pay during COVID by subsidizing their wages.