Saturday, June 23, 2012

Advocacy Corner: Senate Passes Farm Bill -- so now what?

After weeks of debate, the United States Senate has passed a Farm Bill – or “Food & Farm Bill,” as many believe it should be called. First enacted 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.
People of the Seattle Community Farm

There is cause to celebrate, and this is largely thanks to the efforts of grassroots organizing and lobbying. The legislation eliminates direct payments to commodity farmers, which have been a blunt tool that overfund industrial, monocrop agriculture and disproportionately benefit the largest farms. Instead, there will be greater emphasis on need-based crop insurance, including more support for organic farms. Important to WA growers are increased Specialty Crop Block Grants – industry jargon meaning more money for fruits and veggies. The Senate voted to double funding for Community Food Project grants, which levy federal money for community-level food system development and currently support Lettuce Link'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 (food stamp) customers at farmers markets and other healthy food retailers. Another program would introduce a five-state Farm-to-School pilot project. Summarily, the Senate's smorgasbord provides more support for rural economies, urban eaters’ access to healthy food, and equitable agricultural subsidies – all amidst a climate of funding cuts.

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. Senator Parry Murray has acknowledged particular concern over the reduction of SNAP (food stamps). Both Murray and Senator Maria Cantwell* were 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 Bill in 2012 might mean that funding levels from the 2008 Bill will continue, which are far less progressive than those proposed by the Senate yesterday. Worse still, with no 2012 Bill nor an extension of 2008’s version, all Farm Bill programs would be defunded until some relief measure was passed.

America is hungry for a Food & Farm Bill that addresses the real challenges facing everyone who eats. While the Senate's bill makes important strides towards a fairer food system, it continues to over fund surplus-oriented industrial agriculture. It does not adequately meet the needs of struggling farmers, workers and eaters -- both domestically and abroad. As we work to eliminate injustice in all its forms, we must continue to demand a better Bill. Our friends at the Northwest Farm Bill Action Group (NWFBAG) are developing a legislative agenda for the House session – whenever it happens – and we encourage you to stay tuned to their website or 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, NWFBAG 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 for all.

*Not from WA? See how your Senators voted here

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