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NSAC’s 2023 Farm Bill Platform: Investing in Healthy Communities

December 9, 2022

Editor’s Note: This is the second post in our series covering key pillars of NSAC’s 2023 Farm Bill Platform, the first post is here. You can read the platform and take action to endorse it here.

The Farm Bill plays an important role in supporting the health and prosperity of our rural and urban communities. The 2023 Farm Bill can invest in healthy rural and urban communities by strengthening the resilience of local and regional supply chains, increasing market opportunities for small and mid-sized farms and processors, enhancing job growth and local economic development through workforce development and training, and ensuring the most vulnerable have ample access to nutritious, culturally-relevant, locally-produced foods.

Strengthen resilient local and regional food systems

The growing demand for locally and regionally produced food has fueled a need for increased production, as well as a need for programs and policies that can support the expansion of those markets. The 2018 Farm Bill made significant investments – in physical infrastructure as well as in training and peer-to-peer professional networks – in developing these burgeoning local and regional supply chains through the Local Agriculture Market Program (LAMP), an umbrella program that consists of the Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program (FMLFPP), the Value-Added Producer Grant (VAPG) Program, and the Regional Food Systems Partnership (RFSP) Program. These investments provided significant return when the pandemic and other recent supply chain disruptions upended our food system. LAMP helped ensure that infrastructure and relationships were in place to enable local and regional food distribution networks to fill critical supply chain gaps and provide for the most vulnerable in our communities. 

A recent conversation with farmer Brent Biles from Rolling Branch Farm in Naylor, Georgia reiterated this point: “It’s difficult to compete with growers on 5-7,000 acres. We’ve tried to use several programs before we received a value-added producer grant… Despite delays in receiving [COVID] relief funding, we continued to grow food for whoever was hungry. VAPG is the only funding tool that kept our shelled pecan operation open.”  

Existing local and regional food systems responded well to the crisis, but too many producers like Brent and Rolling Branch Farm are still left out of the system. Appropriately sized processing, aggregation, and distribution infrastructure is still inadequate. Technical assistance for producers and entrepreneurs on a range of issues from food safety to business planning continues to make it difficult for many farmers and producers to update their businesses to meet current needs. Federal programs like LAMP can support farmers, ranchers, and fishers who want to take advantage of these new economic opportunities by connecting them with aggregators, processors, distributors, retailers, and institutional buyers and consumers in local and regional marketplaces. The 2023 Farm Bill can ensure this flagship program continues to serve local communities, farmers, and economies by streamlining program administration and expanding program accessibility.

NSAC’s Platform calls for a Farm Bill that will:

  • Provide farmers with resources that allow them to compete successfully in new markets through training, technical assistance for financial planning and marketing, and food safety and organic cost share assistance;
  • Develop new and strengthen existing physical infrastructure that will allow producers to aggregate, process, and distribute products to local and regional markets;
  • Ensure equitable access to USDA funds by ensuring USDA grant funds flow equitably to all regions of the country, demonstrated through rigorous monitoring and evaluation with a racial justice lens; 
  • Prioritize access to existing and new resources for historically underserved and BIPOC producers and communities, and work directly with these communities to overcome barriers to access, including through relationship building and data collection and analysis; and
  • Expand investment in food safety outreach, education, training, and technical assistance that directly assists small and mid-sized farms, beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers, small processors, and small-scale wholesalers.

Rebuild local and regional meat processing capacity

As the food system begins to recover from the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, there is a significant need for financial investments to address the backlog at small-scale slaughter and processing facilities utilized by thousands of farmers and ranchers across the country. The backlog in slaughter and processing access is not a new concern and was only exacerbated by the pandemic. The lack of scale appropriate processing infrastructure in some areas of the country has been a significant issue for small livestock and poultry producers for the last several decades. 

Congress and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) must continue to take steps towards building more resilient meat and poultry infrastructure. The COVID-19 pandemic displayed this sector’s infrastructure weaknesses. Recent shutdowns, which have also highlighted the impact of consolidation, caused livestock destined for slaughter at large plants to be diverted to smaller facilities that serve local and regional markets. This strained the ability of small plants to continue to process small, pasture raised, and grassfed livestock and poultry. 

Small plants are critical infrastructure for food system resilience. Now is an opportune time for policymakers to address a long-standing issue for thousands of small livestock and poultry producers because the pandemic has intensified the need for a more resilient supply chain, and Congress and USDA have committed funds to support this effort. The 2023 Farm Bill offers the opportunity to recommit support for the independent meat processing sector, address workforce shortages, and enhance opportunities for this sector to inform policy and programmatic decisions with and across agencies.

To build local and regional meat processing infrastructure, capacity, and workforce development, NSAC’s Platform calls for a Farm Bill bill that:

  • Directs USDA to sustain and strengthen recent loans and grants for niche meat processing with legislative authorization and permanent funding;
  • Reforms direct and intermediate lending programs to increase their effectiveness; 
  • Grows participation in the Cooperative Interstate Shipment program through expanded outreach and financial assistance;
  • Sustains funding for the Meat and Poultry Workforce Development Programs, with a focus on different training modes, styles, and locations; 
  • Directs USDA to study best practices across and impacts of the Meat and Poultry workforce development program and study training needs for inspectors of small and very small plants; and
  • Directs USDA to form a Small Meat and Poultry Processing Advisory Group to advise and provide feedback on relevant programs to the Food Safety Inspection Service, Rural Development, and Agricultural Marketing Service. 

Expand and enhance USDA procurement programs and practices

The farm bill has historically included programs to provide domestically produced food to low-income Americans. Over the last decade, stronger market connections have developed between lower-income shoppers, government purchasers, and local and regional food producers. COVID-19 super-charged those relationships in many states as initiatives arose to address the increased food insecurity families faced in light of pandemic-related supply chain shocks, school closures, and job losses. 

Food hubs and local distributors acted quickly to pivot their distribution from restaurants and institutions to agencies providing emergency food to families. The initial rounds of the Farmers to Families Food Box program in 2020 included contracts with many local and regional food hubs to purchase and distribute more healthy, fresh, and culturally appropriate food than ever before. The USDA Agricultural Marketing Service’s Local Food Purchase Assistance Program and Local Food for Schools cooperative agreements have continued this critical support for local and regional food distribution to address hunger and nutrition needs. The 2023 Farm Bill is an opportunity to take the hard lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic and other supply chain disruptions to make long-term investments that build lasting benefits for our most vulnerable communities and producers. 

Building on the positive elements of the first two rounds of the Farmers to Families Food Box Program and the current AMS Local Food Purchasing Assistance Program, the 2023 Farm Bill should:

  • Create a permanent, values-based, fresh produce procurement partnership at USDA that empowers farmers, distributors, tribal entities, food hubs, and other community-based entities to provide emergency food distribution programs;
  • Establish values-based evaluation metrics for the program that prioritize contracts with organizations led by or that have a history serving socially disadvantaged groups, and that source from local sources and from growers that are socially disadvantaged, beginning and small-to-mid sized farms; and
  • Ensure regional distribution of awards that reach areas with high proportions of our most vulnerable communities, or those living in areas with the highest rates of poverty. 

Ensure access to locally-produced, nutritious, culturally-relevant food

First piloted in the 1960s, The Farm Bill’s food stamp program was fundamentally different from surplus commodity donation programs because it provided “cash” benefits to eligible households to purchase foods of their own choosing through a variety of food retailers. Eventually renamed to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) in 2008, the program has evolved to emphasize sound nutrition and caloric quality, as well as quantity.

Farm Bill nutrition programs and policies have expanded since 2008 to include a variety of programs that meet families’ critical nutritional needs and offer economic opportunities for farmers and local markets, including:  

  • The Gus Schumacher Nutrition Incentive Program (GusNIP) funds a variety of nationwide innovative models that leverage a SNAP recipients’ benefit to purchase additional healthy products from farmers markets and traditional retail outlets, and most recently a pilot produce “prescription” program for low-income and nutritionally at-risk families. 
  • The Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program increases access to locally grown fresh produce for low-income seniors by partnering with state agencies, farmers, farmers’ markets and roadside stands. 
  • Community Food Projects offers an opportunity for community-based organizations to design and implement programs that address food insecurity through a sustainable, local food system model. 

To ensure ongoing program accessibility and maximum impact for families, NSAC’s platform calls for a farm bill that will:

  • Expand the definitions of allowable redemption models for programs targeting fresh fruit and vegetable consumption among low-income families and SNAP participants to remove barriers and increase participation. 
  • Simplify application and reporting requirements, particularly for smaller award programs intended for one time infusions, such as the Community Food Projects program. 
  • Re-evaluate and reduce match requirements across all programs.

NSAC’s 2023 Farm Bill Platform contains more details on each of the policy proposals. We invite you to read NSAC’s 2023 Farm Bill Platform and take action to endorse it here.

Categories: Beginning and Minority Farmers, Carousel, Farm Bill, Local & Regional Food Systems, Nutrition & Food Access, Rural Development

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