Among the many issues emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic was the distribution of food to the population suffering economic hardships. The pandemic made their dependance on subsidized food sources even more critical.
Beginning in 2020, the Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) branch of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) increased its purchase and distribution of food products by $159.4 million. Along with legumes, dairy products, fruits and nuts, the USDA included the largest purchase of American seafood in our nation’s history in that effort. Embedded in the seafood purchase was the first-ever inclusion of wild-caught American shrimp, never before considered eligible for the USDA/AMS program.
Much of this achievement was encouraged by the American Shrimp Processors Association (ASPA) working with Louisiana’s congressional delegation. The Louisiana shrimp industry was economically depressed because of the collapse of restaurant patronage during the pandemic, leading to huge frozen inventories without a retail outlet. To make matters worse, the Louisiana shrimp season was about to open, and the frozen surplus inventory foretold a collapse of the commodity’s price structure, which would in turn impact shrimp harvesters. For more than 2,000 licensed shrimpers in Louisiana, this spelled catastrophe, further intensifying the impacts of COVID-19 on harvesters’ families.
Dealing with shrimp products was novel to USDA/AMS. But partnering with LSU AgCenter/Louisiana Sea Grant personnel to develop workable guidelines for the purchase and distribution was a natural choice. Several Louisiana Sea Grant fishery agents hail from shrimper families. Agents like Thu Bui, who is based in Franklin and St. Mary parishes, immediately set about streamlining the cost-effective solicitation, bidding and ultimate shipment of excess Louisiana shrimp inventories, thus creating storage space for the new season’s harvest and resulting in needed capital for the fair market purchase of harvester’s new catch.
However, as they say, “the devil was in the details.” Due to the restaurant trade’s traditional shrimp packing preferences, and differing preferences of USDA for food distribution protocols, much of the surplus inventory was being held in forms that were initially ineligible for AMS purchase. By quicky assembling an appropriate task force with members of Louisiana Sea Grant, the USDA, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (LDWF), ASPA and Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry, Bui and her fellow Sea Grant colleagues were able to negotiate a packaging solution for AMS nationwide distribution of shrimp.
“It was truly a team effort,” said Bui. “Each one of the team members had a substantial role in getting the job done. It was all great leaders and no worker drones in the group. We were determined to help the shrimp industry and are proud of what we accomplished.”
The result of this quick Sea Grant mobilization was $50 million in cash from the USDA infused into the shrimping industry, and 7.6 million pounds of Louisiana shrimp taken out of inventory and distributed nationwide. Distribution outlets, like food banks, were delighted to offer their participants Louisiana shrimp for the first time. Just one of many, the Second Harvest Food Bank of Louisiana (the largest in the nation) was appreciative of Louisiana Sea Grant efforts stating, “The USDA shrimp was a wonderful opportunity and a highly valued addition to our clients’ diets. We’re grateful to everyone at Sea Grant who played a role in that.” The shrimp purchase program continues as of this writing.
Sponsored by the U.S. Department of Commerce through NOAA, Louisiana Sea Grant works closely with the LSU AgCenter as its coastal counterpart, using extension, outreach and research to best guide the wise and appropriate use of natural resources.
Albert Gaudé is an LSU AgCenter area Sea Grant fishery agent based in Jefferson Parish.
(This article appears in the spring 2022 issue of Louisiana Agriculture magazine.)
Fresh-caught shrimp is weighed at the dock in Delcambre. File photo by Bruce Schultz