Farm Bill 1.09: The Food and Farm Bill, Now What?

by Mark Dunlea

The Food and Farm Bill is up for renewal, something that occurs about once every five years.  The Farm Bill is how the federal government sets overall food and agricultural policy for the country…to a great extent it determines what we eat and how it is produced. Until recently, the Farm Bill was on a fast track, slated to be passed in December as part of the late Super Committee process. Leaders of the House and Senate Agriculture Committees, arguing that they understood the needs of rhe farming community, undertook proposing $23 billion in Farm Bill Ag budget cuts over ten years to help meet the nation’s deficit reduction goals.

The "deal" that the Chairs of the House and Senate Agriculture Committees struck, however, led some observers, such as the Environmental Working Group, to opine that the "secret negotiations" primarily preserved funding for agribusiness rather than being re-purposed to better helping family farmers, including dairy farmers, and promoting a healthier American diet. While SNAP (formerly food stamps) was exempted from cuts if the Super Committee process failed, the Ag Committees’ leaders wanted to cut $4 billion, primarily by changing the rules… eliminating some benefits for residents of subsidized housing. Agricultural Conservation programs were also a major target, with proposed cuts of more than $6 billion.

However, some key community food and health initiatives did receive new or continued funding, and various provisions of subsequent "marker bills" (draft bills put forth to advance certain positions), such as the Local Food, Farms, and Jobs Act, were included in the leadership deal.  This included $20 million a year to help subsidize SNAP purchases at farmers’ markets (something New York City already does with Health Bucks), albeit $20 million a year seems insignificant when compared to the $70 billion annual SNAP expenditure.  Some of the details can be read here.

With the failure of the Super Committee process, many advocates believe that Congress will now have the time to do it right, with a new process open to broader debate about how the Food and Farm Bill should be reformed.  Many speculate that a new Farm Bill will be passed by Memorial Day or, failing that, will be passed in 2013, after the next election. Presently, it is expected that Congressional hearings on the Farm Bill will begin in February.

As for the deficit, the failure of the Super Committee to agree on how to cut the accumulated deficit by at least $1.2 trillion (over ten years) triggers automatic budget cuts (“sequestration”) of the same $1.2 trillion over ten years starting in January 2013.  The year before sequestration gives Congress a year in which to come up with an alternative plan to find a trillion dollar combination of spending cuts and revenue increases.

More than one hundred New York City food active organizations, faith leaders, chefs, writers, and educators have signed a call to Congressional representatives to support a Food and Farm Bill that will end hunger, promote health, and support strong, regional farm and food economies.

Drafted by the New York City Food and Farm Bill Working Group, the signed declaration articulates five key principles they hope to see reflected in the next Food and Farm Bill: (1) A Health-Focused Food System; (2) An End to Hunger and Access to Healthy Food; (3) A Level “Plowing” Field (promoting agricultural decentralization, competition, and fairness); (4) Good Environmental Stewardship; and (5) Vibrant Regional Farm and Food Economies.  A copy of the documents and the present list of endorsers can be found here. The group is now working on a short list of related priorities to highlight in public education efforts and in meetings with Congressional members.

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, has put forth a number of proposals, including ones on dairy farming, farmers' markets, and Community Supported Agriculture. However, like other rank-and-file members of the Ag Committees, Senator Gillibrand was not closely consulted during the recent Super Committee negotiations.

Senator Gillibrand has held numerous listening sessions across the state, primarily with farm groups, about the Farm Bill. About 200 people attended one in the Bronx in early January. Advocates seemed pleased about the proposals articulated by the Senator and her responses to the various comments. However, they were disappointed that the session lasted only forty minutes and that only six individuals were able to comment. Many were hoping that grassroots organizations would have more opportunity to be heard. While advocates requested at least a second listening session, no commitment has yet been made by the Senator’s office.

As noted, typically, part of the reauthorization process in Congress is for legislators to introduce marker bills that set out key priorities they hope will be included in the final bill. Two marker bills have earned the support of community food advocates. The Local Food, Farms, and Jobs Act, co-sponsored by Senator Gillbrand and Representative Nadler (D-NY), would help farmers and ranchers by addressing production, processing, marketing, and distribution needs to access growing local and regional food markets.  The bill would assist consumers by improving access to healthy food.  For instance, up to 15% of school lunch funding could be use to purchase local foods, and more support would be provided to organic farmers. The measure would provide funding for critically important programs that support family farms, expand new farming opportunities, create rural jobs, and invest in the local food and agriculture economy.  The second bill, The Beginning Farmer and Rancher Opportunity Act, would enhance certain federal programs that provide economic opportunities for young and beginning farmers and ranchers.

The New York Farm Bureau is widely viewed as principally representing the farm community, although other groups, such as Northeast Organic Farming Association – NY, represent particular constituencies. Last year the Farm Bureau worked with the NYC Food and Farm Bill Working Group and other groups to develop a sign on letter regarding the Food and Farm Bill. Like many farm groups, the Farm Bureau wants reforms to the Farm Bill crop insurance programs.  The Farm Bureau cites the failure of the present system to adequately respond to the devastating flooding in several parts of the state this summer and fall that wiped out many crops and, indeed, farms.  They do not view this as just another way to repackage the subsidies from the commodity price support system, that are not expected to survive due to the current high prices for commodity crops.

Crop insurance generally works well for the central and southern parts of the country, but is woefully inadequate for the types and diversity of northeast crops. Farmers already operate under the uncertainties of weather, but New York farmers are put at even greater risk because crop insurance does not meet their needs. Crop insurance right now favors mono-cropping. Growing multiple crops on a farm is common-place on New York’s many diversified farms. A mixed vegetable farm can grow in excess of 60 crops in one year, with multiple plantings maturing at different times. Current crop insurance programs do not recognize the needs of these farmers. When there are losses, these policies often do not pay sufficient indemnities. This, and the extensive record keeping required of participating farmers, are strong disincentives to participation.  In addition, crop insurance for organic operations costs 5% more.  Yet the coverage offers the same indemnity as for other, conventionally grown, crops, despite the higher market value of organic crops.

The largest sector of our New York agricultural community is dairy. New York is the fourth largest dairy producing state and dairy farms operate in nearly all regions of upstate New York. The catastrophic losses to the dairy industry in 2009 illuminated the fact that the current dairy safety nets are inadequate and do not serve in an increasingly volatile market. Dairy reform is one of Senator Gillibrand's top Farm Bill priorities.

The collapse of the Super Committee process raises many questions about the next steps to a Farm Bill. Some want to use the deals negotiated by the leaders as the starting point for moving forward while others hope that we are closer to a new beginning point than to a completed deal. Funding of course remains the biggest challenge. The Ag Committee leaders had proposed $23 billion in funding cuts over ten years. It is hard to make major reforms, especially those costing money, when the overall agenda is to cut costs. Yet the Food and Farm Bill comes along only once every five years, and the reforms included in the recent negotiations were incremental at best, not the fundamental changes that many believe are needed to create a healthier food system.

The other challenge is that it is always difficult to win a fundamental reframing on any major piece of legislation. Every Title and program of the Farm Bill has champions, who often are heavily dependent on associated funding streams. Even those who support a major overhaul of the American food system often focus on securing funds for particular initiatives that, in the overall scheme of the Farm Bill, are minimal in impact, but that might be viewed as major victories by certain constituencies. Obtaining $20 million in new federal funds to match SNAP dollars seems impressive until one looks at the more than $40 billion in overall SNAP funding or, for that matter, the $30 billion spent annually on food in New York City.

Many observers had anticipated a stronger voice from the health community, as the public health costs associated with our unhealthy diets have become better understood and documented. This sector can become more vigorously involved now that the Farm Bill debate is extended.  Many are looking for leadership from the groups that convened around last year's Healthy Farms, Healthy People summit.

In New York City, we are challenged by the fact that none of our New York City Representatives serve on the House Agriculture Committee, the lead group in developing the next Farm Bill. Congressmembers often pay little attention to bills that fall outside their own committees. The New York City Congressional delegation needs to be educated about why the Farm Bill – including all of its components, not just SNAP - is critical to their constituents. Senator Gillibrand has been strongly promoting a reform agenda in the Senate Agriculture Committee, but, as a junior member, has had limited impact. Senator Schumer (D-NY) could use his position as a senior member of the Senate Finance Committee to support Senator Gillibrand's food and farm agenda.

The lines are drawn for serious debate on three Titles of the Farm Bill: Nutrition (primarily SNAP); Commodity Programs (farm subsidies); and Conservation.

SNAP ( Food Stamps)
While SNAP is by far the most critical federal program addressing hunger, many believe that benefits are too low to end hunger and/or provide access to a healthy diet. At the recent listening session in the Bronx, Senator Gillibrand called for a 30% increase in SNAP benefits (by moving from the federal Thrifty Food Plan to the Low-Cost Plan). She also called for removing the artificial cap on housing costs that can be deducted in determining SNAP benefits, something that is especially important for New York City where many tenants spend more than 50% of their income on housing costs.

As Doug Henwood of the Left Business Observer recently pointed out, SNAP benefits are not particularly generous. "The average [food stamp] recipient gets $134 a month in assistance, which works out to $4.40 a day. That's 10% less than the US Department of Agriculture's "thrifty" meal budget, and about half its "moderate" budget. For your average well-fed American, living on a daily ration of less than $5 for food prepared at home would be hard to imagine."

Many House Republicans are dismayed that, despite the intended counter-cyclical nature of SNAP, when the economy is bad and more people are hungry, the costs of the food stamp program increase. While many economists point out that spending more on SNAP during a recession is a critical economic stimulus, many Republicans are pushing to end the entitlement status of the program and turn it into a fixed block grant, like President Bill Clinton and then House Majority Leader Newt Gingrich did with welfare in 1996. Right now, if more people qualify for food stamps, federal spending automatically increases. Under a block grant, states would get the same amount of money for SNAP each year. If more people are hungry, states would supplement SNAP budgets, cut benefits, or reduce the number of people eligible for help.

Many anti-hunger advocates feel the need to continue to campaign to make SNAP more effective in ending hunger, starting with increasing benefits to more adequately reflect food costs. They also want to change various rules to make it easier for more people to obtain benefits; more than a third who are eligible do not receive help. Food banks in particular are pushing for an increase in funding for The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP, the old cheese and butter program), TEFAP has become an increasingly major source of the food provided by the food banks to Emergency Food Providers (EFPs). It is also a critical issue for smaller EFPs, which more often  are dependent on government food donations than they are on the charitable donations relied on by larger programs.

Some health advocates feel that more reform focus should be on improving the quality of food obtained by SNAP participants. While hunger and health advocates share common goals and principles, they can be in conflict when available funding is limited. Healthy food can cost more money than junk food.  (If funds are limited, do we invest in feeding more people and/or increasing their food budget, or do we invest in improving their diets, such as by providing more funding for fruits and vegetables?) New York City Mayor Bloomberg has been pushing to restrict the food choices of SNAP participants by not subsidizing with SNAP benefits unhealthy food choices, such as purchasing soda. His recent request to USDA for such a waiver was rejected. Many anti-hunger advocates oppose this as an effort to stigmatize and restrict low-income people. Instead, they believe, we should focus on expanded nutrition education and access to healthy food for all Americans.

One reform that made it into the Farm Bill deal was requiring participating SNAP retailers to stock more staple foods, like fruits and vegetables, while banning them from participating in the program if their sales of prohibited items like certain beverages and tobacco account for more than 45 percent of their total sales. While this goal may be laudable, some groups are concerned that this actually may decrease access to food in low-income neighborhoods and would prefer instead to focus on positive incentives to increase access to healthy foods.

Farm Payments
The farm subsidy issue is perhaps the most controversial and complicated. On the surface, most people agree that subsidies should be better targeted to family farms and to a healthy diet. Most of the subsidies primarily go to five commodities - corn, soy, wheat, cotton and rice. Perishables, fruits and vegetables, receive very little support. With farm commodity prices at record high levels, it is agreed by many that those subsidies must be ended.  But farmers still need help. Funding associated with subsidies, they believe, would better be shifted to expanded crop insurance and farm revenue programs. The devil is in the details. Groups, like the Environmental Working Group, argue that the leaders' "reforms" were largely a shell game, allowing agribusiness to continue to reap the lion’s share of subsidies for practices that are harmful to the farming community, the environment, and the American diet.

How best to support farmers, and the overall food system, while targeting family farms and good environmental practices is a difficult question to resolve. Some, such as Food and Water Watch, want to re-establish the government crop reserve programs as a more effective way to manage production and prices than commodity subsidies.  Present crop insurance programs promote environmentally unsound mono-crop farming while often doing little to help more diversified farms growing a variety of crops. Yet farmers in general do not want a government handout and are concerned that direct subsidies for vegetables might drive down overall prices, costing them money. But many farmers are unable to cover their production costs and almost all family farmers rely on non-farm income to allow them to survive.  The big farm issue for New York, of course, is milk pricing to support dairy farmers.

Groups, such as Food and Water Watch, which now has an office in Brooklyn, are pushing for a new Competition Title in the Farm Bill to strengthen anti-trust protections for farmers.  Small and medium-scale farmers across the U.S. have been driven out of business or are barely making ends meet, partially because bigger companies, processors and distributors, set unfair prices and operating conditions for livestock and crops. A few large companies dominate the meat and poultry industries. Nearly all producers of broiler chickens are under take- it-or-leave-it contracts. They must sign multi-year year contracts that specify exactly how the chickens will be raised, from the amount of space each animal is allowed to cutting off their beaks to the use of antibiotics.

The 2008 Farm Bill included some competition reforms to protect small and medium-scale farmers who raise cattle, hogs, and chickens. The bill required the U.S. Department of Agriculture to enforce a law called the Packers and Stockyards Act (PDF) by enacting new Fair Farm Rules, also known as the Grain Inspection, Packers, and Stockyards Administration (GIPSA) rules. The Packers and Stockyards Act has been on the books since 1921, but the Department of Agriculture has never enforced its prohibition on unfair contracts and discriminatory practices against farmers and ranchers.

The Obama administration recently released the GIPSA rules resulting from the last, 2008, Farm Bill for comment. The rules did win praise from some for introducing fairness and transparency into an industry that is regarded as being plagued by exploitative contracts and an unequal balance of power between companies and farmers.  Unfortunately, the rules were significantly weaker and narrower in scope than the initial proposed rules due to recent Congressional actions. The rules consist entirely of optional criteria that the USDA could consider when a farmer files a complaint.  It does not make certain practices illegal or establish easily enforceable contract fairness standards. In fact, it does not do everything the 2008 Farm Bill mandated the USDA to do.

Environmental Stewardship
The Farm Bill Conservation Title provides funding for farm environmental stewardship through programs that improve farm management practices, retire land, and protect farmland and other natural resources. It is the largest source of federal funding for conservation.  Conservation funding took the biggest hit in the Farm Bill debt negotiations, with the size of the budget cuts growing throughout the deliberations.

Farm policy in the 1980s moved the conservation debate beyond erosion control and water quantity to issues such as soil quality, water quality, air quality, bio-diversity, and wildlife habitat. Sustainable agriculture programs were established. The environmental lobby became engaged, as they realized that agriculture had major impacts on environmental quality and that changes were easier under agricultural rather than environmental legislation. The principles of the NYC Food and Farm Bill Working Group state that "Our present agricultural system, which relies heavily on chemicals, fossil fuels, and a staggering amount of water, is damaging our environment and our ability to feed ourselves in the future. Conservation priorities must align with our best interests. To ensure a secure food system today and well into the future, we must preserve our vital agricultural soil and water resources, reduce farm and other food-system energy consumption, and practice sustainable agricultural production methods that minimize air and water pollution."

Rather than cutting funding, advocates want more funds to support working lands conservation programs, conservation easement and farmland preservation programs, sustainable agriculture, and organic transition assistance. They also want to re-align a portion of current production subsidies to programs that reward farmers and ranchers for the multiple and on-going environmental and climate benefits delivered by their farming systems and practices.  Advocates believe that climate-friendly program options should be created in recognition of the inherent value of sustainable and organic farming systems in addressing climate change.
The Farm Bill includes funding to promote genetic engineering of our food system, something many food advocates oppose. There will be an effort to, at least, require GMO foods to be labeled.  A significant victory, in advance of the new Farm Bill, for environmentalists is the end of the 30 year-old ethanol subsidy, which cost more than $6 billion annually. Turning corn into fuel did little to meet our nation's energy needs.  It did, however, raise worldwide corn prices, increase demand for cropland, and the raise the price of animal feed.

The Food and Farm Bill is a large and complex piece of legislation whose scope has grown each time it has been renewed since the first Farm Bill in 1933. This article only briefly dealt with some of the major issues; there are many other critical concerns. Most of the public attention to the Farm Bill goes to the issue of farm subsidies, and secondarily, to SNAP. Yet the Food and Farm Bill is the blueprint for our nation's food system and needs far more attention, and urban areas, such as New York City, must play an important part.

Food author Michael Pollan says it is time for Americans to vote with their forks.  According to Pollan, “All the work is going to produce those so-called commodity crops that are the building blocks of fast food. So much of our food system is the result of policy choices made in Washington... It really should be called the Food Bill because it is the rules for the food system we all eat by and those rules are really lousy now and they need to be changed.”

Mark Dunlea is the Executive Director of the Hunger Action Network of New York State and a co-convener of the New York City Food and Farm Bill Working Group.