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A Primer on Federal Food and Farm Policy: What Comes Next?

Apr. 5, 2017

A Primer on Federal Food and Farm Policy: What Comes Next?

By Rebecca Kaye

The future of sustainable agriculture and nutrition policy is uncertain with the new Trump administration, the new Congress, and a new Secretary of Agriculture. Slow Food believes that public policy, at all levels - federal, state, and local - greatly influences what food is produced, how it is produced, and who has access to it. Policy impacts every aspect of the food chain. From the environment, to farms, ranches, and fisheries; from farm workers, ranch hands and fishers, to food chain workers; and of course, it impacts all of us as eaters.

All the above being said, we understand that words like “policy reform” and “legislative agenda,” particularly in this time of change and uncertainty, can leave you cringing, confused, or worse, checked out. In today’s political climate, flooded with a sea of bills, regulations (and de-regulations), executive orders, and policy advocacy actions, it is hard to keep it all straight. But to achieve and maintain Good, Clean, and Fair Food for All, we must stay tuned and be prepared to advocate for policies that support our principles and values and against policies that undermine them. Here is a summary update on important federal policy issues, why they are important to watch, and what we can do help ensure outcomes that support Good, Clean, and Fair Food for All.

Child Nutrition Reauthorization (CNR)

Every five years, Congress has the opportunity to improve the child nutrition and school meal programs to better meet the needs of our nation’s children. The landmark Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 expired at the end of September in 2015. Due to stark differences in House and Senate versions of the CNR, legislation has not been passed and the existing programs continue to run as authorized in 2010. Big items of debate include: block grants (where states to operate their own school food programs, with their own rules), free school breakfasts, strengthening the WIC (Women, Infants and Children supplemental food) program, summer meals for eligible children, and local farm-to-table school food sourcing.

With the looming Farm Bill taking the attention of Congress, and many child nutrition advocates willing to live with the programs of the 2010 bill, the CNR is not a high-profile concern in DC currently, and likely will not happen this fiscal year. However, the House of Representatives has lately taken to attaching “Policy” Riders to budget appropriations bills. These riders can undo positive policy achievements accomplished through normal legislative processes, bit-by-bit, over time. We need to be watchful and prepared to act against bad appropriations riders.

Farm Bill

The Farm Bill is a massive piece of federal legislation that, technically, is supposed to be passed every four years (historically, every five years or so, with delays). The first “Farm Bill,” in the 1930s, combined the interests of rural food producers with urban food eaters, to provide farmers with much needed income and eaters with much needed food during the Great Depression. The most recent Farm Bill was passed in 2014 and the new legislation is actively being planned in Congress for 2018. The Farm Bill historically consists of two components: agricultural programs (crop insurance and subsidies, conservation, rural development, agricultural trade, etc.) and nutrition programs (primarily SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps). The current Farm Bill budget allocates $956 billion over 10 years, 80% of which is spent on nutrition programs.

SNAP is an entitlement program meaning that people meeting eligibility criteria, are “entitled” to receive the benefits. Nonetheless, in the upcoming Farm Bill, increasing work requirements to maintain eligibility will undoubtedly be proposed. Soda purchasing, along with other sweets and less nutritional snacks, using SNAP, is also hotly debated (although the rates of these purchases are the same by SNAP and non-SNAP consumers).  

In December 2016, the House Agriculture Committee released a report called “The Past, Present, and Future of SNAP.” The report overwhelmingly shows the program is a successful tool against hunger for low-income families and that it has low rates of fraud and is running under budget. Nevertheless, many Republicans (led by House Speaker Paul Ryan) favor converting SNAP into a block grant program. As with child nutrition block grants, states would receive fixed amounts of money to operate SNAP in their states, with benefits distributed as states see fit, all while reducing the program’s budget by $100 billion over ten years. It’s clear looking at the history of block grants in social programs, like TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families), that block grants for nutrition programs would lead to inequitable access to these programs across states.

An extremely significant issue for the new Farm Bill will be breaking it up into two bills, a Farm Bill and a Food Bill, as was proposed by House Republicans in the lead-up to the 2014 Farm Bill.  Two bills could pit historically linked rural and urban interests against each other, ending a symbiotic arrangement that has served the interests of both since the Great Depression.

While SNAP accounts for most of the Farm Bill budget, most of the Farm Bill Titles (or sections pertaining to types of programs) affect agriculture.  An important agricultural “marker bill” (or bill proposed with the intention of being a part of a larger piece of later legislation), is the Processing Revival and Intrastate Meat Exemption (PRIME) Act (S.2651 and H.R.3187). The PRIME Act would amend the federal inspection law to exempt states’ custom meat slaughter from federal inspection, if the meat is directly distributed to individual consumers, hotels, restaurants, grocery stores, etc., within the state.  This would be good news for smaller, local meat producers! Federal inspection requirements can be expensive and difficult to work with, especially at a small scale.  The effect of exclusive federal inspection adds to the cost of sustainably, humanely, and locally produced meat, making it uncompetitive with industrially produced meat.  The PRIME Act would be a big step toward supporting small, sustainable producers.

We will be on the lookout for other important marker bills. These include: retention and continued expansion of the Conservation Stewardship Program, increased funding for targeted conservation partnerships, reinstitution of conservation requirements as a condition of receipt of crop insurance subsidies, creation of Whole Farm Revenue Protection crop and livestock insurance for diversified farms, and retention, expansion, and increased funding for programs for new and beginning farmers, value-added and organic agriculture, local and regional food systems, and healthy food access and nutrition incentives.

Farmworkers and Immigration Policy

While not exactly food and farm policy, immigration policy can have a profound effect on our food chain.  It is estimated that 50 to 75% of farmworkers are undocumented and many of the rest are legal temporary workers from outside the U.S.  The Trump administration has attempted significant changes to immigration policy, including the construction of a wall on the Mexican border and newly expanded deportation criteria.  While the construction of the border wall remains uncertain, heightened restrictions and deportations are sure to have an extremely negative impact on our food production, particularly of labor-intensive, sustainably produced, specialty crops (vegetables, fruits, and nuts).

The H-2A visa is a temporary workers visa that allows agricultural employers to legally hire workers from outside the country.  The program is criticized by employers for its high cost and excessive red tape, which employers say inhibits them from procuring adequate visas for the scale of labor needed.  Only 10% of farmworkers work under the H-2A program.

Presently, there are two H-2A reform bills, the Family Farm Relief Act (H.R.281) and the BARN (Better Agricultural Resources Now) Act (H.R. 641), on the floor of the House.  Between them, they would improve access, reduce bureaucratic red tape, transfer the H-2A program from the Department of Labor to the Department of Agriculture, extend the duration of H-2A farmworker employment and make the program available for year-round livestock operations, including dairy, make it possible for farm associations to meet their collective hired farm labor needs, and help provide for better farmworker housing.  While these bills clearly are not a panacea for the many problems facing immigrant farmworkers, H-2A reform could help more immigrant farmworkers work without constant fear of deportation, and therefore, H-2A is on our radar.

What to Do

Slow Food USA, a national organization with members and supporters throughout our nation, is positioned uniquely to help make public food and farm policy that supports our principles and values. But how to do it?  

We will stay in touch with like-minded organizations, that share our beliefs, and friends, like you, to look for the right opportunities to advocate for public policy that will make a difference. Stay tuned, we will be calling on you to act for Good Clean, and Fair Food for All!

 

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