WASHINGTON - President Donald Trump announced a $19 billion relief program for farmers through the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Labeled the USDA Coronavirus Food Assistance Program, it would include “direct payments to farmers as well as mass purchases of dairy, meat and agricultural produce to get that food to the people in need,” Trump said in a Friday Coronavirus Task Force press briefing.
The program will provide $16 billion in direct payments to farmers, ranchers and producers who “experienced unprecedented losses” during the pandemic, according to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue.
Another $3 billion would be dedicated for the purchase of fresh produce, dairy and meat products to be distributed to Americans in need, Perdue said, through food bank networks and other community and faith-based organizations.
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The president noted that the USDA would receive another $14 billion in July that will have funding which will continue to help farmers and ranchers
Perdue noted that dumping agricultural products like milk and flour is not only “financially distressing,” but is also heartbreaking to those who produce them.
The pandemic has caused considerable strain on food producers across the country. The dairy business is struggling due to closures of schools, restaurants, institutions, and universities, according to the Associated Press, prompting producers to dump milk.
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Fears of food supply shortages prompted incidences of hoarding, despite political leaders’ pleas for consumers to only purchase what they needed.
Some massive meat processing plants have closed at least temporarily because their workers were sickened by the new coronavirus, raising concerns that there could soon be shortages of beef, pork and poultry in supermarkets.
The meat supply chain is especially vulnerable since processing is increasingly done at massive plants that butcher tens of thousands of animals daily, so the closure of even a few big ones can quickly be felt by customers. For instance, a Smithfield Foods plant that was forced to close in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, after nearly 300 of the plant’s 3,700 workers tested positive for the virus produces roughly 5% of the U.S. pork supply each day.
In addition, conditions at plants can be ripe for exploitation by the virus: Workers stand shoulder-to-shoulder on the line and crowd into locker rooms to change their clothes before and after shifts.
The virus has infected hundreds of workers at plants in Colorado, South Dakota, Iowa, Pennsylvania, Mississippi and elsewhere. The capacity of plants that remain open has also been hurt by workers who are sick or staying home because of fears of illness — though it's not clear by how much.
While company owners promise to deep clean their plants and resume operations as quickly as possible, it's difficult to keep workers healthy given how closely they work together.
“There is no social distance that is possible when you are either working on the slaughter line or in a processing assignment,” said Paula Schelling, acting chairwoman for the food inspectors union in the American Federation of Government Employees.
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The reduced production so far has been offset by the significant amount of meat that was in cold storage, said Glynn Tonsor, an agricultural economist at Kansas State University. Producers are also working to shift meat that would have gone to now-closed restaurants over to grocery stores.
Whether shoppers start to see more empty shelves or higher prices will depend on how many plants close and for how long.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.