Local Food and The Farm Bill: Small Investments, Big Returns

February 13, 2012 - 9:56 pm No Comments
Courtesy of Kari Hamerschlag, Environmental Working Group, January 20, 2012)

For too long, funding provided by the United States’ most far-reaching food and farm legislation has primarily benefited agri-business and large scale industrial-scale commodity farms that aren’t growing food.  Instead, they’re growing ingredients for animal feed, fuel and highly processed food — at a high cost to our nation’s health, environment and rural communities.

Meanwhile, only meager public resources have been invested smartly to build the kind of dynamic local food economies that support agricultural diversification and help link small- and mid-sized family farms to local and regional markets.

With the 2012 Farm Bill fast upon us, Congress has an opportunity to make smart, timely changes to help  fix our broken food and farm system by embracing a package of policy reforms outlined in the Local Farms, Food and Jobs bill. This legislation was recently introduced by Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) and Senator Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and is co-sponsored by 63 representatives in the House and 9 in the Senate.

The Pingree-Brown bill includes a comprehensive package of cost-effective policy reforms that would boost farmers’ and ranchers’ incomes by helping them meet the growing demand for local and regional food.  The legislation also aims to make fresh, healthy and affordable food-especially fruits and vegetables- more accessible to consumers.  Given our nation’s costly epidemic of diet-related disease, small investments now that increase access and affordability of healthier food will save us billions of health-related dollars down the road.

Trends show people want fresh, healthy, local food

Demand for locally grown, sustainable food is growing in every corner of the country, with more than 100,000 growers now serving more than 160,000 outlets (pdf):

In 2008, the USDA valued this expanding market for local and regional foods at nearly $5 billion. The total will likely surpass $7 billion by the end of 2012, when the current farm bill expires.

This growth is particularly remarkable considering the tiny amounts of federal funding that have been invested in local and regional food system projects. Since 2008, funding has almost doubled but EWG estimates that still just a measly $100 million dollars of taxpayer money a year is being channeled to projects supporting increased local food production, distribution and consumption.

Compare that to roughly $12 billion in subsidies annually that go to industrial-scale growers of commodity crops who are enjoying record income year after year.

Farm Bill must help scale up local and regional food systems

While the recent expansion is impressive, local and regional food markets represented a mere two percent of gross farm sales in 2008. We desperately need the new investments and policy reforms outlined in the Pingree-Brown bill to help this burgeoning market grow and remove the many barriers farmers face in meeting existing demand from grocery stores, restaurants, schools, universities, hospitals and consumers. The Local Food bill has a  $100 million a year price tag, a small sum compared to its potential benefits.

The Local Farms, Food and Jobs bill will improve our broken food system by:

  • Increasing support for local aggregation, processing and distribution so that farmers can more easily sell healthy food, including locally raised and processed meat, directly to schools, hospitals, stores and restaurants.
  • Enabling schools to use more of their federal food funding to buy fresh, local foods. Public schools could opt to use up to 15 percent of their school lunch commodity dollars for buying foods from local farmers and ranchers, instead of through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s nationalized commodity food program.

  • Improving the diets of food stamp recipients and low-income seniors by making it easier for them to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables at farmers markets, community supported agriculture programs, and other direct food marketing services, putting more money in the pockets of local farmers and generating additional economic activity in nearby business districts.

  • Diversifying and increasing the production of healthy and sustainable food by increasing funding for the Specialty Crop Block Grant program and increasing access to credit, crop insurance, and other support for organic producers, diversified operations, smaller-scale and beginning farmers.

Together, these modest but effective investments will yield important, much-needed economic benefits. Farms that sell locally through shorter supply chains often keep a higher portion of the retail dollar, increasing profitability and potential for expansion and job creation.

According to a recent USDA analysis, farmers producing for local markets generally provide 1.3 full time jobs compared to 0.9 for farmers who sell through traditional wholesale markets.  And local food farmers grow higher value crops that generate greater sales per acre—$590 per acre versus $304 for the average farm. Local food markets also provide a critical pathway for new businesses, with beginning farmers accounting for 48% of local West Coast food producers.

Tough road ahead

Despite proven economic and public health benefits, getting this bill through the House agriculture committee may be challenging, given the panel’s hostility to the “Know Your Farmer” Program, the USDA’s comprehensive local and regional food initiative.

Pingree’s bill presents both a major opportunity and challenge for the highly decentralized local food and farming movement to work together in a unified, focused way to transform its considerable success at the local level into the political power needed to win support in the House and Senate agriculture committees.

With the stakes as high as they are, we believe that local farmers and the more than 180 hundred organizations that have endorsed the bill are up to the challenge.

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Northwest Farm Bill Action Group • www.nwfoodfight.org • 2011
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