Senate passes Farm Bill: So now what?

(Editor’s note: This post comes from Amelia Swinton of Solid Ground’s Hunger Action Center. Amelia has been working with the Northwest Farm Bill Action Group to lobby for policy changes to help make our food systems more sustainable and better able to meet the nutritional and health needs of all Americans.)

Solid Ground’s Seattle Community Farm, one of the local projects previously funded through the Farm Bill

After weeks of debate, the United States Senate has passed a Farm Bill – or “Food & Farm Bill,” as many believe it should be called. Conceived over 80 years ago as a New Deal program to aid struggling farmers and feed hungry Americans, the Farm Bill has since evolved into our nation’s most influential piece of food and farming legislation. It sets and enforces the rules on what we eat, how much it costs, and under what conditions it is grown. The Senate’s Bill, which passed yesterday, boasts $23 billion in deficit reduction as it blueprints our food system over the next five years. Let’s take a closer look.

There is much cause to celebrate. The legislation eliminates direct payments to commodity farmers, which have been a blunt tool that overfunds industrial, monocrop agriculture. Instead, there will be greater emphasis on need-based crop insurance, including better support for organic growers. Important to Washington growers is an increase in Specialty Crop Block Grants – industry jargon meaning more money for fruits and veggies. The Senate voted to double fund Community Food Project grants, which levy federal money for community-level food system development and currently support Solid Ground’s Seattle Community Farm.

A new local fruit and vegetable program called the Hunger-Free Community Incentive Grants offers $100 million over five years to increase purchases by SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps) customers at farmers markets and other healthy food retailers, while another program would introduce a five-state Farm-to-School pilot project. Summarily, the Senate’s smörgåsbord would support rural economies, improve urban eaters’ access to healthy food, and subsidize agriculture more equitably – all amidst a climate of funding cuts.

Volunteer Peter Zimmerman at the Seattle Community Farm

But there is also reason to grieve, as the Senate Bill made significant chops to the SNAP program. It is deeply troubling to see $4.5 billion in cuts to SNAP at a time when 46 million Americans are enrolled in this program, which is one of the few federal safety nets that expands and contracts based on need. According to the Community Food Security Coalition, these cuts will reduce benefits to approximately half a million food insecure families by $90 a month. Also disappointing were the underfunding of the Outreach and Assistance to Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers program, and the failure of an amendment that would have required labeling for genetically engineered foods.

In her statement on the Bill, WA Senator Patty Murray said, “This year’s Farm Bill is a victory for Washington State, our farmers, and our economy – and I was proud to support it. It makes important investments in jobs, provides meaningful support for our fruit and vegetable growers, and reforms many programs while continuing the critical safety net for farmers. I do not believe this legislation is perfect, and I am particularly concerned about the reduction in SNAP (food stamps).” Washington Senators Murray and Maria Cantwell have been champions of economically stimulating and socially just Farm Bill reforms, and we encourage constituents to send their thanks.

What’s next? Well, the food fight marches into the House of Representatives, where it must pass before Obama can sign it into law. The House had originally planned to mark-up the Bill next week, but this process has been delayed – and that is cause for concern.

“Whether there is a 2012 Farm Bill or not will largely rest in the hands of the top House Republican leadership,” says the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. No Farm Bill in 2012 means that funding levels from the 2008 Farm Bill will continue, which are far less progressive than those proposed by the Senate yesterday.

America is hungry for a Food & Farm Bill that addresses the real challenges facing its eaters. While the Senate’s bill makes important strides towards a fairer food system, it continues to overfund commodity agriculture at the expense of struggling Americans. As an agency committed to eliminating injustice in all its forms, we must continue to demand a better Bill. Our friends at the Northwest Farm Bill Action Group are developing a legislative agenda for the House session – whenever it happens – and we encourage you to stay tuned to their website or their Facebook page.

In the meantime, you can Dine Out to support local efforts to organize for a healthier Farm Bill! This Monday, June 25 from 4-10pm, the Northwest Farm Bill Action Group invites you to Local 360 in Belltown. A percentage of all checks will go towards this Seattle-based group’s work to educate and advocate for good food.

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Fresh sprouts: The Seattle Community Farm opens!

Caitlyn Gilman bubbles over at the Grand Opening of the Seattle Community Farm

We held the Grand Opening of the new Seattle Community Farm this past Saturday, June 25th. OK, that is such a blasé sentence, inadequate to convey the buoyant sense of hope and possibility that was in the air as surely as crops to feed a hungry community are about to break forth from the Farm.

The words “grand” and “opening” are so overused, conjuring images of chain stores popping up like weeds, nothing more grand than asphalt, nor more open than your wallet. But if we stop for a second to really consider these what these words mean, we’ll get a better sense of the what was going on this lovely afternoon.

Lettuce Link Program Manager Michelle Bates-Benetua

A third of an acre of neatly contoured garden beds, the Seattle Community Farm runs in a narrow strip from Andover to Lilac streets, a stone’s throw from the Link Light Rail tracks on MLK Jr Way S, snug up against the hindquarters of Beacon Hill.

While the size might hardly seem grand, the design of the farm certainly is!

Aidan Murphy and Caitlyn Gilman paint worm bins

Borne of the growing urban agriculture renaissance and shepherded by Solid Ground’s Lettuce Link program, the project has turned a neglected strip of defacto parking lot into a model for how we can nourish a community.

The Farm has drawn in the resources of the City of Seattle’s Department of Neighborhoods, the Seattle Housing Authority (who owns the land), the US Department of Agriculture (which provided startup funds for the project), residents of the Rainier Vista housing development and Rainier Valley communities, local designers, artists, AmeriCorps teams and many others.

Landscape designer Eric Higbee and scarecrows

Through months of hard labor, the land has been transformed. Literally tons of rock for walls and structures, sand for drainage and topsoil were moved and sculpted into 90 loamy garden beds, a children’s garden, and a community gathering space. The site was designed by landscape architect Eric Higbee with input from the neighborhood.

Scott Behmer's office is cooler than yours!

Its transformation was  overseen by Farm Coordinator Scott Behmer, whose office in the corner of the large tool shed (built by volunteers from the adjacent Habitat for Humanity build site) is truly a room with a view, with an open window surveying the property.

Baby broccoli

All but one of the beds is planted, and while our dreary spring has dampened the progress, there are so many seeds germinating and starts rooting that you can practically hear the chard, beets, tomatoes and myriad other crops shooting from the soil and reaching for the sky. The land is vibrating with potential! A few weeks from now it will be a riot of organic produce, the grand outcome of sunshine, healthy soil, water and caring human hands.

Seattle City Council President Richard Conlin and guests

As for opening: In this newly created Rainier Vista neighborhood, the Farm represents a truly open social experiment. It is a vessel of opportunity to be filled by the volunteer contributions of people who have come to the Rainier Valley from all around the world. At the grand opening alone, among the 100 or so guests were community members whose gardening experience started in East Africa, the Pacific Islands, Mexico, the Middle East and even the Midwestern US.

Many hands make light work!

Through a developing work trade model, neighbors who volunteer will receive a bag of fresh produce for every two hours of work, giving people living on low-incomes direct access to the healthiest organic produce possible.

Produce not taken through the work trade model will be delivered to the nearby Rainier Valley food bank for distribution to the broader community.

The Farm!

The model is open and evolving to meet the neighbors’ needs and interests, gleaned through a series of community outreach meetings that brought people from many cultures and lands together over food, language translators and the desire to eat more healthful food.

AmeriCorps member Mariah Pepper leads a farm tour

The event this weekend featured a few guest speakers, Seattle City Council President Richard Conlin and Department of Neighborhoods’ Bernie Matsuno, but the real stars of the show were the men and women from the community. When the speeches were done they walked through the rows, knowingly eyeing the nascent crop, excited voices in languages I could not even identify, hands pointing with passion at the healthy future to come.

New fitness and dance studio holds benefit for Partners in Caring

Fresh Fitness and Dance logoRemember that New Year’s resolution you made to get in shape? To patronize local businesses more? To try Zumba? To support good work in your community?

Fit to Feed is your answer!

Fresh Fitness & Dance is a brand new dance and fitness studio right here in Wallingford, and as a way to welcome our community they are forming a partnership with Solid Ground’s Partners in Caring to benefit food insecure seniors and adults living with disabilities in our community.

Fresh Fitness & Dance is donating to Partners in Caring the proceeds of their 6:30pm Zumba class on Friday, March 4 – as well as 100% of the membership enrollment fees for any new members referred by Solid Ground who sign up during the weekend of March 4–6! What a great opportunity to accomplish your goals while supporting Solid Ground programs.

Where: Fresh Fitness & Dance
4430 Corliss Ave N (behind Kabul restaurant)
Seattle, WA 98103

When: Friday, March 4th at 6:30pm
Why: Because you like to move it, move it!
Cost: Just $10 for the drop-in class! AND – if you sign up as a member, your drop-in class is free!!!

Because classes do fill up, please RSVP by Tuesday, March 1 to Ugochi Alams, Partners in Caring Program Supervisor.

If you can’t make it to the March 4 class, you can still support Partners in Caring by making a donation through their webpage. Thanks!

Join us for Hunger Action Day, February 25 in Olympia!

Root solutions for root causes!

During each Washington State legislative session, the Anti-Hunger & Nutrition Coalition hosts Hunger Action Day in Olympia to advocate for hungry families in Washington. Solid Ground is represented on the steering committee of the Coalition and helps coordinate Hunger Action Day, so we are encouraging our supporters to join us in Olympia on February 25 to engage our legislators in Solid Ground’s work to end hunger in Seattle/King County and Washington State.

Register today and join us in Olympia on February 25 — the success of our efforts in Olympia rely on your voices and the voices of those we serve being heard!

This year’s Hunger Action Day is especially important as the State’s budget crisis will result in the elimination or significant reductions of critical services that help struggling families meet their basic needs, like keeping food on the table. One in seven households in Washington struggled to provide enough food for their family in 2010. Washington now ranks as the 13th hungriest state in the nation, and the problem of hunger in our communities will continue to grow unless we speak out.

We are asking you to help us by telling your friends, family and coworkers. Blog about it, tweet it, share it on Facebook.

For more information on Hunger Action Day 2011, click here for the event info packet.

See you in Olympia!

Threats to food security for immigrants and refugees

(Editor: This post originally appeared on the Lettuce Link. blog, and was authored by our ace AmeriCorps member Amelia Swinton.)

Small child with appleNot Cool: Record numbers of Americans are going hungry. Forty-two million citizens and recent immigrants are currently receiving SNAP benefits (formerly known as food stamps) due to persistent unemployment and rising food costs. And while $300 million in stimulus money has improved food security for those eligible for SNAP benefits, recent immigrants and refugees do not qualify for this crucial source of aid.

Thanks to the Washington’s State Food Assistance (SFA) program, those who meet the federal income criteria can receive look-alike benefits funded by the state. Formed in 1997 as a response to federal legislation that denied benefits to hungry people without permanent residency, SFA serves 14,000 people—including 1,300 children and 2,000 elders. Because immigrants must establish five years of residency before applying to SNAP, this important program tides them over while they build capacity and stability in a new place.

But this program is at risk. A dwindling state budget means severe cuts to all social service programs, and the Department of Social and Health Services has proposed that the Governor cut this program from her budget this spring. Without SFA, immigrant and refugee families would be stripped of their food security, further threatening the health and growth of their communities.

A coalition has developed that includes anti-poverty, anti-hunger, and immigrant rights organizations as well as community-based organizations of color. Leading this effort, the Children’s Alliance has made this issue one of their four legislative priorities during the upcoming session of the Washington legislature, which begins in early January. If you want to join the effort, contact their lobbyist, Jen Estroff. We’ll provide future opportunities to take a stance on this issue in support of healthy, food-full communities across our city.

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