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.
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.
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.