Maintaining a safe and reliable food supply is one of the most important concerns during the coronavirus pandemic. This includes making sure there’s enough food for Americans and that the food can get to American households.
The Food and Drug Administration explained that there are no nationwide food shortages in the United States. This may seem like an odd statement when there are so many empty grocery store shelves.
This is expected to change soon, however. Short-term inventory challenges exist, but the food supply remains in good shape.
This doesn’t mean we don’t have challenges across the food supply chain. As the private sector adapts to meet the food needs of Americans during the pandemic, so too should government at the federal, state, and local levels.
Here are three regulatory fixes that should be made immediately to help in these efforts.
1. Stop Closing Rest Stops
Truck drivers need to be able to effectively and efficiently transport food. Recently though, truck drivers are having problems finding places to park, use restroom facilities, and get food and drinks.
For example, last week, Pennsylvania closed all of its rest areas. It has reopened less than half of them. Due to some toilet paper thefts at rest stops, Nebraska closed them last week whenever an attendant wasn’t present, although parking was still available. Michigan has closed welcome centers indefinitely, but where possible, restrooms will be available.
States should ensure that truck drivers can use state-owned rest areas, service plazas, and welcome centers to park and sleep in safe locations, use restroom facilities, and access food and drinks.
States also should clearly communicate any closure information to truck drivers.
2. Process Visas for Agricultural Guest Workers
In response to the coronavirus and COVID-19, the disease it causes, the United States last Monday announced a suspension of routine visa services in Mexico.
American agricultural interests understandably were concerned since this development will make it more difficult to secure guest workers through the H-2A temporary agricultural worker program. Many farmers rely on legal guest workers, especially those coming from Mexico.
According to the Western Growers Association, all U.S. consulates in Mexico will continue processing applications for “returning” H-2A workers and will prioritize returning workers who are eligible for an interview waiver.
While helpful, these returning workers likely will be insufficient to meet the needs of farmers. Agricultural guest worker visas should be given high priority.
To the extent feasible in light of health and safety concerns, the U.S. should process H-2A visa applications in a timely and efficient manner. The government should do the same with H-2B visa applications for temporary workers in agricultural-related industries, such as seafood.
3. Approve a Waiver of the Jones Act
The Merchant Marine Act of 1920, commonly referred to as the Jones Act, is a protectionist measure that regulates domestic U.S. shipping practices. The Jones Act mandates that any goods shipped by water between two points in the United States must be transported on a U.S.-built, U.S.-flagged vessel with a crew that is at least 75% percent American.
Among many problems, the law drives up shipping costs. For example, according to a Federal Reserve Bank of New York report, the costs of shipping a 20-foot container of household and commercial goods from the East Coast to Puerto Rico is about double the cost of shipping to nearby islands not subject to the Jones Act.
The last thing needed during this pandemic is government intervention that can delay or increase the costs of delivering critical goods across the country.
Waivers are not unusual, although they have been too limited. The Trump administration approved a short-term waiver for refined petroleum products after Hurricanes Harvey and Irma and a short-term waiver for all products shipped to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria.
Given this unprecedented national emergency, the Trump administration should waive the Jones Act for all shipping destinations and for all products, including those related to food and agriculture. This waiver should be indefinite in nature and last through the duration of the pandemic.
Across all levels of government, officials should regularly review regulatory obstacles that may hinder the food supply. This means thinking through issues that could affect any aspect of the food supply chain, including state and local obstacles that make it difficult to deliver food directly to American households.
So many people on the front lines of the food supply chain are unsung heroes during this pandemic, among them our nation’s truck drivers. As they continue to do their part to maintain a safe and reliable food supply, government should make it easier for them to help all of us get through this troubled time.