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Path to the 2012 Farm Bill: Senate Holds Hearing on Healthy Food Initiatives, Local Production, and Nutrition

March 7, 2012

In its “Path to the 2012 Farm Bill” series, NSAC gets into the details of the 2012 Farm Bill debate.

On Wednesday, March 7, the Senate Agriculture Committee held the third of four hearings for the 2012 Farm Bill. Hearings are an important part in the farm bill process because they bring attention to critical issues and policy changes needed, informing the debates and deliberations around the bill.

The Health Food Initiatives, Local Production, and Nutrition Hearing focused on programs and policies in several Farm Bill Titles including Nutrition, Horticulture and Organic Agriculture, and Crop Insurance.

NSAC sponsored the only farmer witness at the hearing (see below).

Opening Remarks

Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) commenced the hearing by outlining the need to explore local food initiatives and healthy food access.  She emphasized the role of local foods in job development.

“Local food systems mean a win-win for agriculture and the local economy; when we buy local, we support local jobs.”

Sen. Stabenow also cited a study indicating that each American household spent $10 more per month buying local products, we would generate an additional $40 million in our economy.

Sen. Stabenow noted that local food is one way to connect communities in need with healthy food.  Food policy councils, farmers markets, co-ops, and food hubs have helped farmers “bridge the gap” in an economic climate that has created a greater need for food assistance and minimized available donation resources.  She mentioned a recent letter from anti-hunger and nutrition groups on key Farm Bill Nutrition priorities.  Stabenow noted that this climate of fiscal restraint necessitates stretching dollars and eliminating duplication.  Finally, she added that while local food is a small part of Farm Bill funding, it makes an enormous impact.

Ranking Member Pat Roberts (R-KS) began with a “special congratulations” to local food producers: “you are part of the fastest growing sector in American agriculture.”  He then reiterated the need to reduce duplication given the 27 programs he believes are geared towards local foods development (as noted in the recent USDA Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food (KYF2) report).

NSAC issued a press comment in response to Senator Roberts characterization of the initiative, saying in part:

“There are not 27 programs for local and regional farms and food.  Rather, there are conservation, farm credit, rural economic development, and marketing programs authorized  by Congress for wide ranging purposes, which can include support for aspects of the urgent task of increasing new farming opportunities to capture these growing new markets.  That is a chief goal of the Department’s Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative.”

First Witness Panel

USDA Secretary Vilsack was the sole member of the first witness panel; he explained his understanding of local food as a complement to production agriculture, one that can lure younger generations back to farming and support rural economic development.

“USDA has recognized the significant role that local and regional market opportunities play for the recruitment and retention of new farm and food businesses.  Some are naturally drawn to the scale of these markets, while others see them as the first step in a scaling-up strategy,” said Vilsack.

The Secretary noted that this is not happening on a large scale, however, because capital needs prevent many younger farmers from having an entry point.  Vilsack suggested Congress address  crop insurance, land transfer, and tax policy issues for beginning farmers and ranchers.

In addition to the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, Vilsack highlighted several USDA programs relating to local food including the Farmers Market Promotion Program, Value-Added Producer Grants, and the Business and Industry Guaranteed Loan Program’s set-aside for local food, all of which serve different needs, from marketing to on-farm activities to infrastructure.  Each of these programs was developed initially by NSAC and its member organizations, working with a variety of congressional champions in advocating for their inclusion in previous farm bills.

Both Sen. Roberts and Sen. Boozman (R-AR) asked Secretary Vilsack about defining “local” and “rural.”  Vilsack stressed the need to allow for flexibility in defining “local,” but was more definitive concerning a standardization of “rural.”  He explained that he feels the current understanding is too focused on population levels, but should instead focus on a series of factors.

Sen. Roberts and the Secretary also spoke to the Economic Research Service data point that found that for every $1 million in sales of local foods, 13 jobs are created compared to 7.5 jobs in production agriculture, an important point regarding the economic benefits of producing food for local markets.

Second Witness Panel

The second witness panel of the hearing included Mr. Dan Carmody, President of Eastern Market Corporation in Detroit, MI; Mr. Ron McCormick, Senior Director of Local Sourcing & Sustainable Agriculture of Walmart Stores, Inc.; Grady, AR Farmer Mr. Jody Hardin; Ms. Anne Goodman, President and CEO of Cleveland Foodbank; and Mr. John Weidman, Deputy Executive Director of the Philadelphia-based Food Trust.

Mr. Carmody explained the convergence of local food and healthy food access at Detroit’s Eastern Market.  Eastern Market acts as a food hub to increase producer income and improve the health of SNAP participants through expanding access to Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) purchases at the market.  Mr. Carmody stated that for Eastern Market and other such programs to continue to develop into “a comprehensive, healthy, metropolitan food hub,” continued support of specialty crops, Farmers Market Promotion Program, and Community Food Projects is needed.  He also asked the USDA to remove infrastructure barriers to food hub development.

Mr. McCormick echoed the need for infrastructure development so that Walmart distribution centers can effectively and efficiently use resources to get food from farm to table.  In fact he said it would be “a dream” to have more food hubs, or a centers to aggregate food from smaller local producers.  He also noted the company’s commitment to sell $1 billion in local food produced by small and medium-sized growers by 2015 and the current and ongoing success to this end.

When asked by Sen. Roberts about the challenges facing small farmers to meet food safety requirements, Mr. McCormick cited the high cost of GAP certification and audits.  This is a particularly important issue for producers wanting to sell wholesale to institutions and retailers.  Mr. McCormick agreed with Secretary Vilsack that specialty crop production, lack of capital, and an aging farmer population are challenges in today’s American agriculture.

Arkansas farmer Jody Hardin with Sen. Boozman (R-AR)

Mr. Jody Hardin, the only farmer on the panel, was introduced by his Arkansas Senator and member of the Agriculture Committee, Sen. Boozman (R-AR), as a “pioneer.”  Paving new roads for local food markets in his state, Hardin spoke about the incredible economic success his Certified Arkansas Farmers Market experienced as a result of marketing efforts funded through the Farmers Market Promotion Program (FMPP).  He then explained that while FMPP works well for direct producer-to-consumer marketing, there are immense barriers in “scaled up” sales for producers wanting to sell products to local institutional and retail outlets.  Mr. Hardin spoke to the challenges facing specialty crop and organic producers, including the need for crop insurance products and a food safety farmer training program that serves this sector of agriculture.

Responding to a question from Sen. Leahy (D-VT), Mr. Hardin explained the need for marketing to increases public awareness of the ability to make SNAP purchases at some farmers markets, and the need for technology to fund markets without it.  Otherwise, farmers are missing out on income opportunities.

Sen. Leahy also spoke to the Farm to School program he wrote and NSAC championed during the 2010 Child Nutrition Reauthorization, which will begin later this year.  He explained that “outdated and nonexistent infrastructure” make Farm to School and other farm to institution efforts much more difficult.  Similarly noting the role of local food in community economic development, Mr. Hardin answered a question from Sen. Stabenow by indicating that his local food market in a downtown food desert turned a once “blighted” community into a booming economic hub for restaurants, housing, and other activities.

Ms. Goodman spoke about the challenges facing food banks given the economic recession and the heightened need for food to feed hungry Americans.  She confirmed the decline in fraud and abuse in SNAP.  Ms. Goodman also spoke about food bank efforts to connect feeding programs with local food in an attempt to serve the needs of low-income Americans while also supporting farmers’ incomes and local economies.  She mentioned a specific effort to purchase produce from local farmers and then flash-freeze it for winter months.  In his testimony, Mr. Hardin also spoke about flash-freezing as a way to extend the ability of consumers, including schools, to purchase local products on a year round basis, not just during summer months.

Mr. Weidman concluded the panel with a discussion of the work the Food Trust has done in cooperation with PolicyLink and The Reinvestment Fund to expand the Healthy Food Financing Initiative, an effort to address the lack of access to fresh, healthy food in some communities, commonly referred to as “food deserts.”  Mr. Weidman also spoke to efforts to bolster Farm to School programs, which enable American schoolchildren to learn where their food comes from while also increasing access to fresh produce.

Farm Bill Marker Bills

The Local Farms, Food, and Jobs Act and the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Opportunity Act include provisions to renew funding for the vital local food and beginning farmer programs discussed in the Senate hearing.  Both bills are aimed at inclusion in the 2012 Farm Bill and have the support of hundreds of farm, food, and rural organizations nationwide.  Their inclusion in the 2012 Farm Bill is pivotal to addressing the concerns raised at today’s hearing.


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

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