U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue on Monday helped distribute food boxes in Springfield, then told a forum at a farm near Rochester that he hopes farmers eventually won’t need federal financial help during the pandemic.
Joined by U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Taylorville, Perdue spoke about the quick development of the Farmers to Families Food Box Program. He and Davis then helped deliver food and milk to people who had lined up in their cars outside the Boys & Girls Clubs of Central Illinois on Springfield’s East Side.
Perdue said that when COVID-19 restrictions caused closure of restaurants and a supply chain disruption, he told President Donald Trump that there was enough food for people, but “we’re going to have to pivot” to get it to them.
“Farmers didn’t have a market … the trucks and the employees were laid off in the distribution cycle, and the people had needs,” Perdue said. “This was the quickest, the the most efficient way to get them the food that they needed. It’s been highly acclaimed all over the country.”
Food being handed out Monday included half-gallons of milk, a box with protein including pork, and dairy boxes including cheese, yogurt, cottage cheese and butter.
Before the distribution began, speeches in the parking lot of Union Baptist Church included one by Pam Molitoris, executive director of the Central Illinois Food Bank, who lauded the program. She also thanked those helping distribute food, including Tiffany Mathis, CEO of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Central Illinois, and her staff and an “army of volunteers.”
“They are ensuring that children are going to bed with full bellies,” Molitoris said.
Among those who had lined up in cars for the distribution was Joyce Sebring, 77. She is a landlady for many tenants in Springfield homes, and regularly goes to the distributions to help families most in need. She got provisions for two families Monday.
“I don’t take the food to the same people every week,” Sebring said. “I spread it out.”
She said she is particularly helping large families without cars.
“When you’ve got a household full of five to seven kids, you always need it,” she said of the food.
“Oh my gosh,” she said when asked of the impact of the program. “I had one guy tell me that the Boys Club has saved their lives.”
Later, at Beaty Farms near Rochester, Perdue took questions about farm programs. One questioner asked if there should be permanent market facility program. The program provides assistance to farmers and ranchers directly impacted by “unjustified foreign retaliatory tariffs,” according to the USDA.
“As a farmer, I always took a lot more pride in getting a good crop at a fair price than a government check,” Perdue said. “I don’t think farmers really want a permanent MFP program. We want … the free market to work. And that’s what we’re trying to do.”
As the forum got underway, Larry Beaty, in welcoming Perdue and Davis, said he was “going to do a paid political announcement here. Anybody that farms that doesn’t vote for President Trump, there’s got to be something wrong with him. This administration has done more for us than any that I know in the past 20 years.”
“I appreciate the commercial, but … for the record, it was an unpaid commercial,” Purdue said later, with a laugh. The trip was an official government visit. He added that Trump has often asked him to take care of farmers, and Purdue said he thinks Trump sees farmers as representing the “American spirit” in being entrepreneurs and risk-takers.
Larry Beaty and his wife, Diana, grow corn and soybeans on 2,200 acres. Diana Beaty in July became the first woman president of the Sangamon County Farm Bureau.
Perdue told the forum of first hearing from Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross that Trump was close to withdrawing from the North American Free Trade Agreement.
“After I got off the floor, I said that would not be good for agriculture.”
He said he “picked up a couple of charts” and went to the Oval Office, and showed Trump a map with a “sea of red” with cities represented by “little blue dots.”
“I said, Mr. President, if you withdraw from NAFTA, these are your voters that you’re going to hurt,” he recalled.
“He looked at that, he said, ‘Those are my voters?’ I said ‘Yes.”
The president held off on the withdrawal, Perdue told reporters later, “giving us the opportunity to negotiate a better deal.”
“We’re going to bring back jobs to the U.S. because of the USMCA as opposed to NAFTA,” he said.
On Friday, Trump and Perdue announced an additional $14 billion in assistance to agricultural producers facing continued market disruptions associated with COVID-19.
“Certainly everyone hopes and prays that this pandemic will end soon,” said Perdue, a former Georgia governor. “It doesn’t appear that it’s going to be a cliff type of end, just suddenly, like it began. But I think the more we learn about that, the more we can learn about the virus and hopefully come out with a vaccine, America can feel comfortable we can go about our business as normal.”
“Farmers have continued to do what they do, but it’s obviously affected … consumption patterns,” Perdue added. “We have to be mindful of that and hopeful that we can get back to what we consider normal sooner rather than later.”
In his recently released book, “Rage,” journalist Bob Woodward quoted Trump as saying he understood the dangers of COVID-19 early this year, but downplayed them to avoid a panic.
Asking if he faults Trump the way he communicated about the virus, Davis said, “I think there’s some bipartisan blame to go around for lack of preparation. … We underestimated as a country, as Republicans and Democrats, the impact of a pandemic on the United States of America, and we better darn well make sure that doesn’t ever happen again.”
Contact Bernard Schoenburg: [email protected], 788-1540, twitter.com/bschoenburg.