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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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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