Why city slickers should care about the Farm Bill

Better legislation could help channel fresh produce from local farmers to food-stamp beneficiaries, benefiting both

December 4, 2013 5:00AM ET
A girl pays for her mother's groceries using food-stamp tokens at a green market in New York City.
Andrew Burton/Getty Images

As the end of the year looms, Congress is again tackling the Farm Bill, the many-headed legislative beast that includes funding for both farm subsidies and nutrition programs.

If you are among the 80 percent of Americans living in an urban area, you may not be following this congressional battle. That is, unless you receive food stamps, formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Then the Farm Bill affects your every trip to the grocery store. (Nutrition programs, including SNAP, make up about 80 percent of the bill’s five-year budget.)

Farmers and ranchers are also waiting on Farm Bill-supported programs to help them buy equipment or recover from natural disasters, like the freak October storm in South Dakota that left up to 100,000 cattle dead. But negotiations this year have been paralyzed by proposed deep cuts to SNAP. (Most famously, the House of Representatives' version of the bill, which called for $39 billion in cuts to nutrition programs, was killed once it got to the Senate.)

The conservative Heritage Foundation in a recent email blast to supporters derisively called it the “Food Stamp bill,” urging Republicans not to vote for a version that does not drastically cut funding for SNAP, an anti-poverty program that feeds 1 in 7 Americans.

As members of the House and Senate agriculture committees meet feverishly to come to an agreement before Congress adjourns for the holiday recess (House Speaker John Boehner has indicated that he would like the issue to be resolved before Christmas), it is crucial to remember that the different parts of the bill are not mutually exclusive and, together, help farmers as well as hungry families.

Yes, nutrition programs are a cardinal part of helping hungry families and alleviating the grave state of inequality in this country. But if local and regional foods are prioritized — by SNAP and the other programs supported by the Farm Bill — small farms and local food producers benefit too.

A two-way street

The Farm Bill began in the 1930s as a New Deal effort to end land erosion and rural poverty and has since metastasized into an ungainly omnibus bill, with line items for everything from foreign trade to slaughterhouse inspections, university research and housing loans. It was intended to help farmers and feed hungry Americans, but as the country has become increasingly urban, many on Capitol Hill have come to see these goals as mutually exclusive. This is both unproductive and shortsighted: They should see the local-food movement as a way out of their political logjam — and could look to existing programs as a first step.

The previous Farm Bill, passed in 2008, created or supported a range of initiatives aimed at increasing access to local food among food-aid recipients. Some are within the nutrition title of the bill, while others are elsewhere — but they serve the same function. For example, the Farmers Market Promotion Program received $35 million in the last Farm Bill to promote farmers markets among SNAP recipients and help the markets (many of which are run by nonprofits) purchase electronic card readers that could accept SNAP dollars. While open-air markets and community-supported agriculture groups (whose members pay for an entire season of food and then receive a share weekly) often have the cheapest local produce, they do not usually have the technology to scan debit cards.

Local food means more than crunchy kale. It means 36,000 farms in upstate New York have more customers.

These ways of buying directly from the farm are growing in popularity and accounted for about $4.8 billion in sales in 2008. Farmers — especially younger, immigrant or resource-poor ones — can make more direct income and differentiate their products with higher quality standards. Many are eager to serve SNAP recipients, and it is unfair to them that in many parts of the country, corner stores and big-box retailers are the only places where families receiving SNAP can fill up on food.

Of course, these programs are dwarfed by our traditional distribution network, which is steadily consolidating around Bentonville, Ark.: Approximately 25 percent of U.S. groceries are now bought from Walmart. In this environment, alternative channels help maintain regional diversity — and regional economies.

If more money is spent locally on farm-fresh food, local farmers make money (instead of faraway conglomerates), and SNAP recipients get access to in-season, affordable and high-quality food (instead of junk and processed items). In other words, it can become a real two-way street. Programs like these are at stake in the current Farm Bill.

Fixing farm-to-table

Responding to proposed cuts to nutrition programs, urban mayors and food advocates have begun to cry foul. This summer, 18 mayors signed a letter to congressional leaders asking that SNAP cuts not be implemented. They also asked, for the first time, that the program track the types of purchases SNAP beneficiaries make and incentivize healthy food purchases by adding a subsidy for farmers market purchases, as New York City’s Health Bucks program does.

Allowing SNAP recipients to buy fresh, local food has been a longtime goal of New York, which boasted almost $2 million in SNAP spending at farmers markets in 2012. This is a result of efforts by nonprofit groups like GrowNYC, which sets up new farmers markets in low-income areas and makes sure SNAP recipients learn about, and can use their benefits for, local food. Despite the popular perception of local food as a niche product available only to the wealthy, GrowNYC (which receives funding from the Farm Bill, via the Farmers Market Promotion Program) works hard to restore a relationship that was once second nature: farmer to consumer.

These local-food efforts mean more than affordable apples and crunchy kale. They mean the 36,000 farms in upstate New York have more customers, who buy what grows there. (Sorry, no pineapple.) Those customers also pitch in when disaster hits: GrowNYC customers, including SNAP recipients, donated more than $100,000 to help 29 family farms recover from Hurricane Irene in 2011. That is evidence of real cooperation, and the Farm Bill should direct more money toward local-food initiatives within the nutrition title rather than pit apartment dwellers and crop tillers against each other.

Across the country, Farm Bill money is also helping food banks add refrigerators to store high-quality perishable foods. Food banks both buy food and receive donations, but without refrigeration facilities, needy families can receive only packaged, often highly processed foods. By improving this infrastructure, the Farm Bill-supported Community Facilities program increases the availability of healthy food — and adds another institutional customer for local farmers.

According to a report issued last month by the White House, “strong consumer interest in buying local is driving innovation and diversification in the farm economy.” But more nonfarmers need to get involved to press this issue and help their neighbors understand it.

And beyond the consumer level, representatives from urban districts must pledge concrete support for rural areas, which is easier if their constituents are purchasing fresh eggs and local bacon. Existing programs and food advocates’ hard work have already pioneered ways to restore a healthy farmer-consumer relationship. Now it is Washington’s turn to understand this.

Nina F. Ichikawa is the food and agriculture editor at Hyphen magazine. Previously she was a food and community fellow with the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy in Minneapolis. From 2009 to 2011, she assisted the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s local and regional food initiatives.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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