July 8, 2011
On Thursday, July 7, the House Subcommittee on Nutrition and Horticulture held a farm bill hearing to examine USDA specialty crop programs. Specialty crops include fruits, vegetables, tree nuts, flowers, and nursery plants. The specialty crop title of the farm bill also includes organic agriculture programs.
The Subcommittee heard testimony from Rayne Pegg, Administrator for USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), and Rebecca Bech, Deputy Inspector for Plant Protection and Quarantine at USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS).
During her opening remarks, Subcommittee Chairwoman Jean Schmidt (R-OH) stated that Members need a “firm understanding” of AMS and APHIS programs to write a 2012 Farm Bill that protects food safety, rural development, and nutrition, while minimizing program overlap and waste. She specifically noted that the hearing would not address the raging debate over the National Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement but rather focus on the farm bill.
Ranking Member Joe Baca (D-CA) lauded the role of 2008 Farm Bill for “looking to the future” in terms of research and measures to open markets for organic and specialty crops, and reiterated the role of fruits and vegetables in preventing chronic diseases and their related health care costs.
Emphasizing California’s place as the leader in organic acreage , he stated that “We need American products, grown by American farmers…I look forward to working with my colleagues to ensure that the down payment made in 2008 doesn’t go to waste come 2012.”
Specialty Crop Block Grants
Pegg fielded questions on the Specialty Crop Block Grant Program (SCBGP) from Chairwoman Schmidt and Rep. Southerland (R-FL). Representatives remarked that they had received complaints from their state agriculture department offices about the timeliness of notices of funding availability for awards, to which Pegg responded that SCBGP can only make funds available once Congress has appropriated them. Pegg also answered questions from Chairwoman Schmidt about how AMS limits states’ overhead administrative costs with a 10 percent cap, rules out duplicate funding with other programs, and conducts financial oversight of projects.
Pegg noted that although only 10 percent of Farmers Market Promotional Program (FMPP) projects are required to support Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) at farmers markets, in 2010 over 30 percent of FMPP projects supported EBT at farmers markets. Other measures to increase access included publishing a handbook to help markets implement EBT access. Over 1,600 farmers markets now have EBT access. In response to Rep. Baca’s inquiry about what more Congress can do to improve fruit and vegetable access, Pegg pointed to innovative nonprofit programs, including double bucks projects, and possible future funding from other USDA divisions including Rural Development and Food and Nutrition.
Section 32 Funds and National School Lunch Program
Pegg and Bech answered questions on their authority to use Section 32 funds and how USDA had exercised that authority so far this year. Section 32 funds can be used to encourage agricultural product export and domestic consumption. Section 32 funds come from dedicated tariff receipts. Of the $403 million in fruit and vegetable purchases required for fiscal year 2011, Pegg reported that they had used $232 million to date.
She also answered questions on how well Section 32 funding of Department of Defense (DoD) fresh food supply to schools has been working, noting that they rely on states and schools to determine how effective the DoD Fresh program is working in their area. She noted that DoD Fresh is effective in some areas and acknowledged that she has heard reports of concerns as well. When asked by Chairwoman Schmidt if USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) could possibly take on a bigger role in running the program to get food to schools, Pegg responded that it could.
Pegg also answered Rep. Costa (D-CA) about progress on healthier school food, saying that schools are recognizing how they can incorporate local foods into healthy school meals and training their food service staff. Chairwoman Schmidt said the Subcommittee will have a hearing on diet-related health epidemics at a later date in time.
Pesticide Data Program
Chairwoman Schmidt asked about the purpose and findings of the annual Pesticide Data Program report. The report tracks trends in pesticide residues on agricultural commodities in the U.S. food supply, with an emphasis on those commodities highly consumed by infants and children, which Pegg reported have been declining somewhat.
Included in testimony but not a topic of questions was information on AMS Market News, Marketing Orders and Agreement, and the National Organic Program.