President Joe Biden has signed multiple executive orders since being sworn in as the 46th President of the United States on Jan. 20, just over a week ago.
Several of the orders will have impacts on the food world, the workers in food industries and on food insecurity, which is at record-high levels amid the pandemic.
Expansion of food assistance programs
On Jan. 22, Biden signed an executive order that aims to expand food assistance programs and increase the amount of aid people are eligible for.
In early January, under former president Donald J. Trump, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefit allotments were increased by 15% for the first six months of 2021. Biden's executive order seeks to extend that period through September.
The order also aims to allow states to increase SNAP emergency benefits for those most in need: The Trump administration allowed all families not currently receiving the maximum monthly benefit to receive that amount, but very low-income households that were already receiving the maximum monthly benefit did not see any increase. The Biden executive order called for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to seek out options to give these families an increase, something Feeding America Managing Director of Policy Robert Campbell said was encouraging.
"About 37% of SNAP households who were already at that maximum benefit level saw no increase in their food assistance because of the (Trump administration's) interpretation," Campbell told TODAY Food. "By design, those 37% are the households with the lowest incomes … They don't have any of their own resources to contribute towards food for their families. … We want to make sure that those with the lowest incomes who are struggling the most are not left out."
The executive order also asks the USDA to re-examine the underlying SNAP benefit formula, which Campbell said doesn't correctly indicate the current cost of a nutritious diet.
"What this does is ask USDA to go back and look at what they call their Thrifty Food Plan, which is the basis that underlies base net benefits," he said. "It's more than 30 years old, it makes a whole lot of assumptions that we think are far outdated for how individuals prepare their food, the types of food they purchase. … A lot of evidence and research shows it needs to be updated. By doing so, we hope it'll better reflect the benefits that households need."
Another part of the order focuses on the Pandemic Electronic Benefits Transfer (P-EBT), which helps low-income families with school-age children by providing them with food dollars equivalent to the value of meals missed due to COVID-19–related closures of schools, daycares and other facilities. Campbell said the program's current cap is low, $5.86 per child per school day, but the executive order will raise that cap by approximately 15%.
Protections for worker health and safety
Other executive orders from the Biden administration seek to ensure that workers stay safe amid the pandemic, which could have an impact on those working in places like restaurants, grocery stores and meatpacking plants.
While the executive order, issued on Jan. 21, does not place any immediate obligations on private companies, it directs the Occupation Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to issue new guidance for workplaces within the next two weeks, in consultation with other appropriate federal agencies, and increase enforcement of that guidance.
OSHA is also being asked to consider whether "emergency temporary workplace safety standards on COVID-19 are necessary." If those standards are found to be necessary, they must be issued by March 15. The agency is also being told to focus enforcement efforts on "violations that put the largest number of workers at risk of COVID-19" and ensure equity in enforcement.
The agency has also been instructed to "conduct a multilingual effort" informing workers of their rights in the workplace.
Unemployment insurance for those leaving unsafe workplaces
In an executive order signed on Jan. 22, Biden asked that the Department of Labor consider clarifying rules regarding the "federally guaranteed right" of workers to "refuse employment that will jeopardize their health" while still being eligible to receiving unemployment insurance.
According to CNBC, most workers can't refuse "suitable work" and still collect unemployment insurance. Suitable work is considered a job that matches your skill set and pays a similar rate to previous employment. During the pandemic, that definition changed, and states and local governments were allowed to make their own determinations of what constituted a "safe work environment." Biden's executive order, paired with the order protecting worker health and safety, hopes to provide one federal standard.
Workers will still have to prove that their work environment places their health at risk and that they have asked their employer to enforce an "improved standard," CNBC reported. Workers will also have to show that employers chose not to act on recommended health and safety guidance from agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). A "general fear of contracting the virus" is not considered cause to refuse suitable work.
Dr. Siby Sekou, the president and CEO of ROC United, a nonprofit organization that works to improve the lives of restaurant employees, said that the executive order will make it safer for food workers to do their jobs.
"These guidelines establish a clear link between health, safety and economic justice," he told TODAY, adding that he hopes the new orders will keep workers from being retaliated against if they report unsafe behavior by their employers. "It is really important for workers to be able to take care of their families financially when they feel like they are at risk of getting sick or getting their families sick."
Order affecting speed in chicken processing plants
Another action by Biden, this one signed on Jan. 25, withdrew a Trump administration request that would have raised the maximum speed at which chicken processing plants can operate.
Currently, slaughterhouses process 140 birds per minute, and in 2018, the Trump administration gave waivers to 54 poultry plants allowing them to increase that number to 175 birds per minute. The Trump administration request would have extended that increase to all poultry plants.
A Washington Post investigation found that plants that had waivers allowing them to process 175 birds per minute were 10 times likelier to have coronavirus cases.
Biden's executive order does not revoke existing waivers but will prevent plants without waivers from increasing their production speed to more than 140 birds per minute.
100-day pause on deportations
One of Biden's first executive orders was a 100-day pause on deportations of undocumented immigrants; it's estimated that at least 50% of the workforce in the farm work and meat processing industries is undocumented.
Randy Capps, director of research for U.S. Programs at the Migration Policy Institute, said that this likely won't have a major impact, since arrests and deportations by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) had dropped during the pandemic, and there hasn't been a large-scale raid on a workplace since August 2019.
"A lot of these meatpacking plants and food processing plants are in fairly rural areas where ICE doesn't have a huge presence," Capps told TODAY. "Excepting those really unusual large operations, there haven't been large ICE arrests in those areas."
Biden has also changed ICE priorities, focusing on undocumented immigrants who have committed an aggravated felony, making the scope for any potential deportations much narrower.
" … We're starting from a point where there's already low activity, and then what they're (doing) is resetting, basically, back to where things were at the end of the Obama administration," said Capps. "That's basically saying that the vast majority of the unauthorized immigrant population is off-limits."