U.S. Department of Agriculture COVID-19 Spending Analysis

Published: May 28, 2020

Federal Market AnalysisUSDACoronavirus (COVID-19) PandemicForecasts and Spending

The USDA’s spending related to COVID-19 response focused on the department’s core mission, but it took weeks for citizens using public assistance programs to finally get the food they needed.

Key Takeaways

  • Agriculture quickly loosened rules to accommodate the new reality of the epidemic.
  • USDA food assistance spending took 2 months to ramp up.
  • Spending on other goods and services, including special clothing, masks, cleaning services, and software remained low from the beginning.

Schools closed back in early March when the COVID-19 pandemic broke out, leaving millions of children across the United States without the meals they typically received while attending class. Coupled with the fact that state-mandated lockdowns threw millions of Americans out of work, hard-pressed families found it even more difficult to provide for their kids’ daily dietary needs. The Department of Agriculture responded to the escalating crisis by lifting rules that required schools to provide meals in group settings. States could instead request waivers in order to ensure that food assistance programs still carried on under new circumstances that required social distancing in order to stem the COVID-19 spread. Children in many locations could not attend class, but at least they could still get something to eat. The relaxation of rules for other food assistance programs quickly followed, enabling the USDA to get food into the hands of those citizens who were, and remain, the most in need.

Program adjustments proved to be only the first step in the USDA’s COVID-19 response. The second step involved ramping up spending on Agriculture’s food assistance and other programs. Three months into the pandemic this spending continues to increase, reaching a total of $959M by the end of May. The distribution of spending by month is as follows:

As the data shows, the vast majority of Agriculture’s COVID-19 related spending occurred in May, indicating that it took the USDA two months – March and April – to grow its spending on crisis response.

Not surprisingly, the top 10 items on which Agriculture spent the most over that time included various types of food for those relying on public assistance programs. However, spending on medical equipment and clothing, including masks and gowns, also rose, followed by building maintenance (i.e., cleaning services) and IT Software. Another thing the data shows is that spending on certain goods took two months to ramp up. One wonders what those who are dependent on these programs did for food over those 8 weeks.

In fact, the USDA spent only $12M on food in April after spending $0 on it in March. It isn’t until May that we begin to see serious growth in the amount of foodstuffs purchased for public assistance programs. Spending on everything else either fell off entirely or reached a level not nearly as high as supplies for food assistance programs. This makes sense given the scale of public need.

In sum, while the USDA quickly loosened rules to get dietary assistance to citizens who needed it most, actual spending on food took many weeks to grow. Finally, in May the department began spending large amounts to supply Americans in need with the food they required, and to support farmers hard hit by falling demand with a much needed boost.