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Uninvited to Re-Open Task Force, Nikki Fried offers it her ideas

Offers 15 recommendations to promote and aid Florida agriculture in coronavirus crisis.

Snubbed by Gov. Ron DeSantis when he put together his Re-Open Florida Task Force, Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried has offered the panel her own recommendations for recovery from the coronavirus crisis.

The state’s only Democratic member of the Florida Cabinet has issued a 10-page report called “Recommendations to the Re-Open Florida Task Force from Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried.” She mainly sticks to the agricultural realm, though she offers advice on improving Florida’s unemployment system.

The recommendations ask for protections for migrant farm workers and expansion of milk and produce purchases. She also gets into broader topics, such as chasing the Hurricane Michael federal relief money that was supposed to help Florida’s timber industry recover.

Her recommendations offer somewhat of a contrast to DeSantis’s Re-Open Florida Task Force’s Industry Working Group for Agriculture, Finance, Government, Healthcare, Management and Professional Services. which identified the industry as “low risk” for job loss, and has yet to offer many specific recommendations.

Fried offered 15, plus a little bit of annoyance that DeSantis hadn’t asked her for her ideas.

“As the Constitutional officer responsible for overseeing our state’s agriculture industry, and as your colleague on the Florida Cabinet, independently elected by the people of the great state of Florida, I am obliged to provide you with the following recommendations to be considered by the Re-Open Florida Task Force,” Fried stated in her cover letter to DeSantis.

“I speak on behalf of our state’s agriculture community in saying that discussion of re-opening our state’s economy is incomplete without a full consideration of agriculture issues,” she continued.

Those issues include:

– Encourage President Donald Trump and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to increase  Coronavirus Food Assistance Program payments, and to accelerate those payments, and to prioritize assistance for seasonal crop growers.

This comes out of concern that the $16 billion set aside for farm relief in the federal CARES Act has limits that may do little to help Florida’s fruit, vegetable and dairy farmers.

– Encourage Trump and the USDA to abolish “misguided proposals” that suspend restrictions on imported fruits and vegetables, including suspension of a rule that requires country-of-origin labeling on produce.

– Encourage the USDA to purchase more Florida-grown produce, diary, meat, and seafood for its $32 billion effort to help keep food banks stocked with fresh foods.

– Encourage Trump and the U.S. Department of State to continue processing the H-2A visas that allow immigrant farm workers to come to Florida to pick seasonal fruit and vegetable crops.

– Encourage the USDA to complete its work to administer and distribute the $380 million block grants that Florida’s timber industry has been awaiting for relief from damages from the 2018 Hurricane Michael in the panhandle forests.

– Continue to provide Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as food stamps) at the maximum level, seeking additional federal waivers to do so.

– Direct the Florida Department of Transportation to continue its trucking weight waivers.

– Replenish the Small Business Emergency Bridge Loan program, which ran out of money after helping fewer than 1,000 of the 38,000 Florida small businesses that applied.

– Instruct state agencies to look for opportunities to increase purchases of Florida-grown foods and other commodities.

– Allocate at least $5 million for the Fresh From Florida campaign, in addition to the current budget.

– Work with the agriculture industry to ensure farmworkers have more access to masks and other personal protective equipment.

– “Swiftly” improve Florida’s unemployment system by raising staffing, increasing unemployment benefits, extending the duration of benefits, relaxing eligibility, and eliminating needless hurdles.

– Seek federal permission to allow WIC and SNAP beneficiaries to purchase a wider range of foods and non-foods including toiletries and cleaning supplies.

– Work more closely with Fried’s Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to develop a statewide rural health initiative.

– Sign HB 969, to establish a Florida office of broadband to expand broadband services into rural, unserved and underserved communities, and apply for federal money through the CARES Act  and the USDA Distance Learning and Telemedicine program for funding to rapidly expand it.

“The actions the re-Opening Task Force, your administration and we as state leaders take today will determine the strength of Florida agriculture tomorrow and in the years ahead,’ Fried concluded. “These actions will also chart a course for Florida’s consumers, vulnerable populations, and working families facing an uncertain future.”

Written By

Scott Powers is an Orlando-based political journalist with 30+ years’ experience, mostly at newspapers such as the Orlando Sentinel and the Columbus Dispatch. He covers local, state and federal politics and space news across much of Central Florida. His career earned numerous journalism awards for stories ranging from the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster to presidential elections to misplaced nuclear waste. He and his wife Connie have three grown children. Besides them, he’s into mystery and suspense books and movies, rock, blues, basketball, baseball, writing unpublished novels, and being amused. Email him at scott@floridapolitics.com.

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