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USDA 'Lacks Transparency' In How It's Distributing Coronavirus Aid

The USDA wants to move two of its agencies from Washington, D.C. to Kansas City.
Amy Mayer
Harvest Public Media file photo
The USDA wants to move two of its agencies from Washington, D.C. to Kansas City.


In the past two weeks, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has issued about $1.4 billion to agricultural producers to provide a boost amid the coronavirus pandemic.What’s unclear is how those distributions were calculated.


“We lack some pretty key transparency on how they get to the payment,” saysJonathan Coppess, Assistant Professor of agriculture at the University of Illinois.


The payments are part of the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP), a program launched by the USDA in April to maintain the food supply chain and feed hungry Americans. CFAP includes a total of $16 billion in direct payments to farmers and ranchers. 


So far, Midwestern states, led by Iowa, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Illinois and Kansas, have received the bulk of the money. Livestock producers have been top earners overall as well.


While the USDA is releasing weeklytalliesof where the money is going, it’s unclear how they’re making those determinations.


“USDA’s provided information that tends to argue that their methodology involves some estimate of losses… how they calculate those losses remains at times uncertain if not questionable,” Coppess says. 


Understanding how the department distributes money is important in maintaining transparency, says Coppess.


“This question of transparency around this is valuable and important in terms of understanding not just the program, but whether it was properly put together, whether it was fair and equitable,” he says.


This isn’t the first time the USDA has been criticized for its lack of transparency around distributing aid. The agency faced a similarbacklashafter issuing Market Facilitation Program (MFP) payments for losses farmers incurred during the trade war with China. Watchdog groups and prominent members of Congress suggested the USDA unevenly administered the money, favoring the South and farms owned by billionaires and foreign-owned companies.


Follow Dana on Twitter @DanaHCronin

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Dana Cronin is a reporter based in Urbana, Illinois. She covers food and agriculture issues in Illinois for Harvest. Dana started reporting in southern Colorado at member station 91.5 KRCC, where she spent three years writing about everything from agriculture to Colorado’s highest mountain peaks. From there she went to work at her hometown station, KQED, in San Francisco. While there she covered the 2017 North Bay Fires. She spent the last two years at NPR’s headquarters in Washington D.C., producing for shows including Weekend Edition and All Things Considered.