ALLEGHENY FRONT – Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf is sending a message about the food supply: there’s plenty of food and the state is adjusting to get it to people. Wolf along with the state’s agriculture secretary outlined how the state is addressing food security measures in a news conference Wednesday.
Consumer habits changed almost overnight after the Pennsylvania’s stay-at-home order in March, and the food supply chain has been adapting. After restaurants, schools and other institutions closed, many farmers have had nowhere to send their products, some dairies dumped milk, and some farmers plowed under crops, unharvested. Meanwhile, some supermarket refrigerator shelves have stood empty of milk, and as more people lose jobs in the economic downturn, lines at food pantries have grown.
At the supermarket
In one effort to eliminate food waste, the state is adopting a temporary policy from the Food and Drug Administration, so manufacturers can send foods intended for restaurant use to grocery stores. The policy suspends nutrition label requirements for those products.
“We want to make sure that the restaurants can use it, that grocery stores can use it, but at the same time that the consumer feels safe that that item has gone through an inspection and is good to consume,” said Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding.
Helping people in need
“The coronavirus has caused an unprecedented number of Pennsylvanians to lose their incomes,” Wolf said, including many people who have never had to seek assistance.
To help, the state has supported five million meals through the schools, Wolf said, and now provides staples like milk – not just in single servings – but in gallons for families to take home. The state has received $16 million in federal aid so far to support food banks and to get food assistance benefits to more people.
“We’re working to make more Pennsylvanians aware of how to access SNAP, EBT or WIC, or find a food bank, or a pet food bank,” Wolfe said. “And we’re making it easier to get assistance by eliminating certain paperwork.”
These efforts are also meant to help farmers, Wolf said. The Pennsylvania Agriculture Surplus Program reimburses farmers for donating their products to charitable food systems.
What About Issues with meat processing plants?
President Trump’s executive order this week declaring meat processing plants as critical infrastructure under the Defense Production Act has met with criticism from food safety advocates and unions representing plant workers nationwide, including Pennsylvania.
Meat processing plants have become hot spots for coronavirus, sickening thousands of workers. Plants nationwide have closed temporarily, including four in Pennsylvania, where more than 300 workers have tested positive for the virus. Two employees died at a plant in Hazleton, Pa., according to Wendell Young, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 1776, which represents workers at all four plants.
“I think Trump’s order is reckless and dangerous,” Young said.
In an effort to prevent meat shortages, President Trump said his administration would take “all appropriate action” to ensure that meat and poultry processors “continue operations.”
This came the day following a warning from the head of Tyson Foods, one of the country’s largest processors, that plant closures would mean the loss of millions of pounds of meat to the supply chain.
“Clearly, [Trump] issued an order to throw some red meat politically, no pun intended, at his base – that he’s going to keep their steaks and chicken on the table, and their pork chops coming to them,” Young said.
In some states, health departments have shut down meat processing plants. Trump’s order said to ensure worker safety, meat processors will follow new federal guidelines during the national emergency.
But Governor Wolf said workers will be the ones to decide to go back to work.
“There is nobody, not the president, not me, who can wave a magic wand and say we are going to open up food processing,” Wolf said. “If employees don’t feel safe, they’re not going to go.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration on Sunday issued voluntary guidelines on physical distancing and other measures to keep employees safe, but food safety and labor advocates fear that meat companies will not follow them.