(Washington, D.C., March 17, 2020) – While President Donald J. Trump continues to take action during this COVID-19 National Emergency and enact measures to ensure Americans are safe, secure, and healthy, the U.S. Department of Agriculture continues to be open for business to provide services to the American people. U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue recorded the following video message reassuring the American people that the U.S. supply chain remains strong. Additionally, the Secretary thanked those on the front lines of the American food supply: folks stocking the shelves of local grocery stores, truck drivers keeping supply networks open and functioning, food service workers in kitchens across the country preparing the products at markets, school lunch workers keeping America’s families and children fed during closures, and USDA’s food safety inspectors ensuring the food we eat is safe, healthy, and nutritious.
While USDA has moved to an enhanced telework posture during the Coronavirus National Emergency, services to the American people continue. Those services include but are not limited to:
Food Safety Inspections Service (FSIS): Meat, poultry, and processed egg inspection services continue as normal. Planning for absenteeism is a part of normal FSIS operations and as such, FSIS is closely monitoring and tracking employee absenteeism to plan for and minimize impacts to operations. FSIS is also working to prioritize inspection at establishments based on local conditions and resources available. Yesterday, USDA Under Secretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs Greg Ibach and USDA Deputy Under Secretary for Food Safety Dr. Mindy Brashears issued a letter to stakeholders reassuring them that FSIS and AMS are rising to meet the challenges associated with COVID-19.
Animal Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) and Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS): APHIS and AMS continue to provide critical inspections and grading services. APHIS and AMS are ensuring the health and safety of USDA employees while still providing the timely delivery of the services to maintain the movement of America’s food supply moving from farms to forks. APHIS and AMS are prepared to remedy any possible disruptions in their services. Commodity markets can be assured that the USDA will keep America’s food supply safe as well as abundant during this national emergency. AMS will continue to report commodity prices through its market news service. Yesterday, USDA Under Secretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs Greg Ibach and USDA Deputy Under Secretary for Food Safety Dr. Mindy Brashears issued a letter to stakeholders reassuring them that FSIS and AMS are rising to meet the challenges associated with COVID-19.
Food and Nutrition Service (FNS): Today, Secretary Perdue announced a collaboration with the Baylor Collaborative on Hunger and Poverty, McLane Global, PepsiCo, and others to deliver nearly 1,000,000 meals per week to students in a limited number of rural schools closed due to COVID-19. These boxes will contain five days worth of shelf-stable, nutritious, individually packaged foods that meet USDA’s summer food requirements. The use of this innovative delivery system will ensure rural children receive nutritious food while limiting exposure to COVID-19. Last week, Secretary Perdue announced proactive flexibilities to allow meal service during school closures to minimize potential exposure to the coronavirus. During an unexpected school closure, schools can leverage their participation in one of USDA’s meal programs to provide meals at no cost to students. Under normal circumstances, those meals must be served in a group setting. However, in a public health emergency, the law allows USDA the authority to waive the group setting meal requirement, which is vital during a social distancing situation. USDA is using all available program flexibilities and contingencies to serve our program participants across our 15 nutrition programs. We have already begun to issue waivers to ease program operations and protect the health of participants. As of today, USDA has been asked to waive congregate feeding requirements in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico; USDA has granted those requests. Secretary Perdue spoke at the School Nutrition Association’s 48th Annual Legislative Action Conference about USDA’s response to the Coronavirus as it relates to school meal programs. You may click HERE for a video recap.
Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS): FAS has plans and workplace flexibilities in place to ensure that it can continue to deliver on its mission of creating global trade opportunities for the producers and exporters of American farm and food products. These efforts include continued monitoring and reporting on U.S. agricultural exports, global agricultural trade, and trade policy priorities such as implementation of the U.S.-China Phase One Economic and Trade Agreement.
Farm Production and Conservation (FPAC): USDA Service Centers, which include offices of both Farm Service Agency (FSA) and Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), are located throughout the country. Our customers are farmers and ranchers who are adaptable and innovative, and our staff provide service to every county nationwide. If an outbreak comes to certain areas, FSA and NRCS will disperse the customer service and mission delivery tasks needed to telework as well as to other areas as we route phones, post and electronic communications to staff able to complete critical functions. The FPAC Business Center will address the majority of essential operations and critical functions through increased use of telework. Since the Risk Management Agency’s (RMA) partners in the crop insurance delivery system are insurance companies and their agents and adjustors, we depend upon them as our customer-facing service on behalf of RMA. Should an outbreak occur locally, the Approved Insurance Providers (AIPs) and their agents and adjustors would be able to accomplish most tasks through telephone and email. With regards to payment of escrow to the AIPs, this process happens in RMA’s Kansas City office. Should that office be affected, most of the work will be done via telework. We also have capabilities to shift functions to the other regional offices as well to perform those tasks.
Natural Resources and the Environment (NRE): USDA Forest Service’s (USFS) critical work, such as improving the condition of the nation’s forest and grasslands, suppressing wildfires and other public service responsibilities, continues uninterrupted. At this time, USFS continues to remain open and operational, and we are committed to the continuity of our mission. We are working to exercise our technology capabilities where possible to ensure connection and service to the public. As always, we continue to work in shared stewardship with our state and local partners. USFS’ priority is wildland fire readiness and response to protect life, property, and natural resources for the American public. No impacts to readiness and response is expected. Fire training impacts are minimal. Coordination efforts continue to ensure mission-essential training are conducted to maintain firefighter qualifications. During local quarantine requirements, public-facing Forest Service offices and recreation sites will cease provisions of guest services to the public. Public recreation events with visitors, volunteers, and partners will be impacted if events are canceled or postponed.
Research, Education, and Extension (REE): National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) is making every effort to produce and deliver official federal agriculture statistics on schedule. We will evaluate data collection and agency operations for the production of each NASS report as COVID-19 conditions change. If we are able to collect enough data and conditions are such that estimates can be established and released, we will publish reports. If there are changes in the publication schedule, notification will be made by a notice distributed to the news media and posted at nass.usda.gov. We ask farmers and ranchers who have received a survey to please respond online. It’s now more important than ever to respond promptly online so that we can deliver the statistics that agriculture counts on, without having to follow up. The URL is on every questionnaire, agcounts.usda.gov. To start, use the survey code on the questionnaire. The Economic Research Service (ERS) is fully prepared to deliver on our regular mission activities and to support Departmental needs for analysis. Nearly 100 percent of staff are telework ready and ERS is operating in a 100 percent cloud computing environment, which facilitates full functionality with remote access. Agricultural Research Service (ARS) continues its mission-critical work without interruption. We are continuing to support our stakeholders, including action and regulatory agencies. We will begin planning for new research on the impact of CoVID-19 on food safety and animals.
Rural Development (RD): RD will continue to provide loans and grants to rural communities across all of RD programs. ReConnect applications will continue to be accepted with a March 31st deadline, and we will then begin the review and award process. RD has granted authority to lenders that participate in our Single-Family Housing Guaranteed program so they can work with borrowers to ensure folks will stay in their houses if they are having difficulty making payments. RD will issue guidance to our Single-Family Housing Direct borrowers to ensure they can also seek payment assistance if needed.
The Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights (OASCR): While OASCR will assume a maximum telework posture, the important work that the dedicated officials in OASCR perform will not be disrupted.
Office of the Chief Financial Officer (OCFO): OCFO will continue providing payroll processing, financial systems availability, insurance premium processing and vendor payments to its external and internal customers. OCFO employees have the ability to work remotely and still accomplish the agency’s mission.
The Office of the Chief Economist (OCE): The Office of the Chief Economist (OCE) will continue to advise on the economic implications of policies and programs affecting the U.S. food and fiber system and rural areas. In addition, OCE plans to coordinate, approve and publish the monthly World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates (WASDE) Reports on regular timelines.
The Office of Partnerships and Public Engagement (OPPE): OPPE will continue to connect rural and underserved communities to the resources and programs available to them at USDA, including more than $18 million in grants for socially disadvantaged and veteran farmers and ranchers. OPPE will work closely with existing partners and USDA Liaisons located across the country to provide capacity building, technical assistance, and access to resources to all stakeholders.
The Office of the Chief Scientist (OCS): OCS is continuing to provide strategic guidance and communication on high priority research issues of national importance. OCS is coordinating the implementation of the USDA Science Blueprint core research themes across USDA to help guide USDA scientific priorities for the next five years.
U.S. Codex Office: The U.S. Codex Office is working with the international Codex Secretariat on ways of progressing important food safety and quality standards without undue delay. A key element is maintaining communication with delegates, stakeholders and international counterparts. For example, we are moving to turn planned public meetings into virtual meetings with U.S. stakeholders to review and seek input on U.S. positions on issues related to contaminants in foods, food import, and export inspection and certification systems, and methods of analysis and sampling.