Monday, July 23, 2012

Why the food fight over the Farm Bill matters to you

Anna Goren, AmeriCorps VISTA at SFC Member Jewish Family Service Food Bank, reflects on the Farm Bill. 

The Farm Bill is a classic democratic-process-headache: a 1,000 page piece of legislation that takes on all things food and agriculture related.
It covers everything from food stamps to farmland conservation to nutrition programs to farm subsidies.
Past versions have mostly benefited big farmers of soy, corn, and other commodity crops, along with large corporations who control most of the food industry (see infographic at right for more).
With the interests of nutrition experts, anti-hunger groups, small and large farmers, agri-business, and politicians vying for their once-in-every-five-year shot at staking claims in the Farm Bill, it comes as no surprise that it stirred up a bipartisan food fight in the House of Representatives last week.
Democrats and Republicans are still battling between saving food stamps and nutrition programs and cutting the federal budget, so passage of the bill may be delayed until after the Presidential election in November.
There is some good news: with the idea of good, clean, and fair food becoming a priority for Americans, more attention has been paid to the 2012 Farm Bill by ordinary citizens than ever before.
Small positive changes have resulted, including pilot projects for more effective international aid, support for farmer’s markets and local food hubs and the elimination of direct payments to giant commodity farmers regardless of what they grow.
This year’s version may, in fact, be our shot at some actual changes that support a radical idea: rewarding farmers who actually grow fruits and vegetables, which according to Michelle Obama, should be filling up half our plate. The way legislation has been in the past, we have to ship tasteless blueberries and tomatoes in from Chile to meet that requirement.
Less attention has been paid, however, to the global implications of the Farm Bill:

International Food Aid

A discarded can of US food aid in Ethiopia. (Photo by Alex Stonehill)
A discarded can of US food aid in Ethiopia. (Photo by Alex Stonehill)
International development organizations are all in agreement about how ineffective distribution of international aid is under the current Food for Peace program of USAID.
Regulations require that the process of sending food overseas directly use American shipping and manufacturing companies, making the process considerably more expensive to American taxpayers, wasteful of natural resources, and harmful to local markets overseas.
In 2008, a pilot program was introduced to test the obvious alternative of purchasing food aid in the overseas region. Luckily, some people at Cornell put their heads together and validated perfect common sense – preliminary results of the program revealed that costs were cut by nearly 50% by purchasing food closer to where it is being delivered, and it supported local farmers (duh). The 2012 Farm Bill proposed to increase funding to the pilot program by $40 million, which is a step in the right direction.
Another recommendation by many international development organizations like Oxfam and American Jewish World Service is to reduce the monetization of food, the process of donating (or selling at a very cheap price) excess American grains in developing country markets. This kind of aid mostly benefits US shipping and packaging companies, and disrupts local markets by effectively ‘dumping’ free food for re-sale, replacing local retailers. The 2012 Farm Bill proposes reduced funding for monetization programs.

Farm Labor

Farm laborers harvest asparagus in Eastern Washington. Many of the low-wage migrant laborers that harvest our fruits and vegetables depend on food stamp programs that are on the chopping block in the proposed version of the Farm Bill (Photo by Alex Stonehill)
Farm laborers harvest asparagus in Eastern Washington. Many of the low-wage migrant laborers who harvest our fruits and vegetables depend on food stamp programs that are on the chopping block in the proposed version of the Farm Bill (Photo by Alex Stonehill)
Farm laborers are some of the most economically disadvantaged workers in the country. They are exempted from minimum wage laws and overtime pay, subject to the harshest conditions and physical labor, and face countless barriers to healthcare and other services.
It is no wonder that they deeply rely on welfare programs like SNAP (food stamps), the major source of cuts in the House Ag Committee’s proposed version of the Farm Bill.
According to a briefing paper by Bread for the World Institute, fruit and vegetable production relies overwhelmingly on foreign-born labor – over 70% of farm workers cite Spanish as their primary language.
While commodity crops rely on machine labor, ‘specialty crop’ production relies mostly on the backbreaking work of humans. Here in Washington, the third largest fruit and vegetable producing state, 10% of the asparagus crop was simply left in the ground this year because no one was available to pick it following recent crackdowns on immigration. These are the jobs that most white Americans, even in tough times, just won’t do.
A statement by the North Carolina Farmworkers Advocacy Group explicitly points out how proposed SNAP cuts would disproportionately affect Latino children in their state. Proposed changes to SNAP would exclude those who hold small assets (such as a modest vehicle or a small savings account) or who can’t prove citizenship for their entire family.
If we are going to focus our energy to fight for ‘specialty crops’ in the 2012 Farm Bill, we ought to also fight for the people growing them and their families.
Due to stalling by the House Republican leadership on a vote, there is still time to lobby on the 2012 Farm Bill. To make your voice heard on a particular Farm Bill issue, write in to your Representatives. If you’re unsure of what to say, there are some great guidelines here.
You can also get involved with local community action groups organizing around the farm bill, such as Community Alliance for Global Justice’s Farm Bill Working Group:
This post was produced with funding from City Club.
Anna Goren is a native Seattle-ite who has called Jerusalem, Berkeley, and Montreal home.  She studied International Development at McGill University, where she coordinated volunteers interested in promoting civil society and peace building in the Middle East, and conducted research on how to adapt social services and education systems for Inuit communities in Nunavik, QC.  She currently works with SolidGround’s MLK/VISTA Team.When she’s not thinking about social justice, Anna can be found biking around Seattle thinking about interesting sandwich combinations.

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