A shopper at the Bowling Green farmer's market. New York State is home to more than 36,000 farms—most of which are small, family farms ranging from one to 99-acres—that generate $5 billion in annual revenue.

Photo by: Taleen Dersdepanian

A shopper at the Bowling Green farmer’s market. New York State is home to more than 36,000 farms—most of which are small, family farms ranging from one to 99-acres—that generate $5 billion in annual revenue.

The farm bill is up for renewal in Congress next year, something that occurs once every five years.

The biggest funding in the farm bill is for food stamps (SNAP), the country’s main anti-hunger program. The final bill will have a major impact on the environment, from the use of water, land and fossil fuels to issues such as organics, genetic engineering and biofuels. It is how the federal government will set overall food and agricultural policy for the country. And of course, we are what we eat.

Current farm policy poorly serves family farmers and consumers. It promotes an unhealthy diet based on overly processed foods high in sugar and fats that leads to major public health problems such as obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure.

Until recently, the new farm bill was on the fast track, slated to be passed in December as part of the supercommittee process. Agriculture leaders in Congress argued that they better understand the needs of the farming community, so they should take the lead in making the proposed $23 billion in cuts over ten years to meet deficit reduction goals.

The “deal” that the Chairs of the House and Senate Agriculture committees struck, however, led reformers such as the Environmental Working Group to complain that the “secret negotiations” primarily preserved funding for agribusiness, rather than better helping family farmers, including dairy, or promoting a healthier diet. However, community food advocates were pleased that several of their initiatives were at least partially funded, including funding for SNAP users to make purchases at farmers markets.

Now that the Supercommittee process has collapsed, Congress will have months or even years to do it right. There needs to be a much broader debate about how the Food and Farm Bill should be reformed. While Memorial Day is cited as a potential date for action, the bill could be extended for a year or longer.

More than one hundred New York City food advocacy 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. The NYC Food and Farm Bill Working Group’s signed declaration articulates five key principles members hope to see reflected in the final Food and Farm Bill: one, a health-focused food system; two, an end to hunger, and access to healthy food; three, a level “plowing” field (promoting agricultural decentralization, competition, and fairness); four, good environmental stewardship and five, vibrant regional farm and food economies.

New York City needs farmers to thrive so they can grow the food we eat. There is also an increasing urban agriculture movement that includes community gardens, urban farms including on rooftops, community-supported agriculture and farmers’ markets. Food manufacturing is a large and stable part of the city’s jobs market, in addition to the myriad restaurants and other retail food outlets.

Fighting hunger, healthily

While most people assume the farm bill primarily helps farmers, two-thirds of its spending goes to food stamps (SNAP) and other nutrition programs. Yet hunger in America is at record levels. SNAP benefits fail to provide families with enough funding to feed themselves, let alone obtain a healthy diet.

In New York City, an all-time high of 1.84 million residents rely on SNAP, and 1.4 million rely on emergency food. One in six, including more than 400,000 of our children, live in households facing food insecurity. Driven by high unemployment, food-stamp use nationally has soared by two-thirds since the end of 2007 to more than 46 million recipients, about a seventh of the U.S. population. The $71.8 billion for SNAP is about 12 percent of the national grocery bill

While the SNAP program is by far the most critical federal program addressing hunger, benefits are too low to end hunger and/or provide access to a healthy diet.

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 percent less than the U.S. 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.”

While economists point out that spending more on SNAP during a recession is a critical economic stimulus, Republicans are pushing to end the entitlement status of the program and turn it into a fixed block grant, like President Clinton and Speaker 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 either have to cut benefits or reduce the number of people eligible for help.

One reform that did make it into this year’s original farm bill package was requiring participating SNAP retailers to stock more staple foods like fruits and vegetables, and banning retailers from participating if their sales of prohibited items like liquids and tobacco is higher than 45 percent of their total sales. But that bill also contemplated $4 billion in cuts to SNAP and related programs.

Past farm bills inadequately promoted healthy food choices, like fruits and vegetables. Current U.S. farm policy provides incentives for the production of processed foods that are high in added sugars (from federally subsidized corn) and added fats (from federally subsidized soy). The least healthful calories in the supermarket are the cheapest, in part because of federal financing. This helps perpetuate the paradox of chronic hunger and widespread overweight and obesity in America. Nearly 25 percent of our children and 67 percent of our adults are overweight or obese. In New York State, $6.1 billion is spent annually fighting diet-related diseases.

Environmental stakes are high

Food is also connected to the health of our environment and our economy. Our current food system is unsustainable. It accounts for about 20 percent of our national energy consumption and relies heavily on inputs including chemicals, fossil fuels and a staggering amount of water. Unchecked, such practices can degrade our natural resources, eroding our soil and polluting our air and water. Runoff from farmlands, not factories, is the major source of pollution of our waterways.

The farm bill could be a major source of funding for conservation and environmental programs. Unfortunately, these programs were major targets for cuts as part of the debt reduction package. Virtually no funding is going into figuring how our food system will need to respond to climate change, as temperatures, growing seasons, rainfall and insects all change.

Rather than cutting funding, advocates want more dollars 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 ongoing environmental and climate benefits delivered by their farming systems and practices. Climate-friendly program options should be created that fully recognize the inherent value of sustainable and organic farming systems in addressing climate change.

The proposed 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.

One victory for environmentalists in the current version of the bill is the end of the 30-year-old ethanol subsidy, which cost more than $6 billion annually. Turning corn into gas did little to meet our nation’s energy needs, while raising corn prices, demand for cropland and the price of animal feed worldwide

The relationship between the city and our regional food-shed is significant. New York State is home to more than 36,000 farms—most of which are small, family farms ranging from one to 99-acres—that generate $5 billion in annual revenue. However, this valuable resource is threatened as we lose farmland to development, especially near cities, and it is difficult to find new farmers to replace retiring farmers.

How best to subsidize?

A relatively small number of corporations increasingly control food production, availability, and cost. Unsound public policies have resulted in corporate consolidation of the food chain making it increasingly difficult for small and mid-sized farms to continue operation. Many medium-sized farms find themselves little more than contract workers, forced to operate under the conditions and prices dictated by a handful of large agri-corporations that control food processing infrastructure.

The existing farm subsidies predominantly reward a small number of farmers, many corporate-owned by wealthy investors, who grow certain crops. The rural counties that have the highest level of commodity payments also have the highest rate of poverty, since the federal subsidy payments actually go to the farms’ “owners” in urban areas like New York City and Los Angeles. The bottom 80 percent of farmers received an average total payment of just $579 per recipient; 62 percent of farmers receive no subsidies.

Many farmers are unable to sell their crops or livestock to even cover their production costs. This has been a challenge for dairy farmers here in New York state. There is no easy solution to the problem. But just eliminating all subsidies for farmers, as some suggest, is not going to keep family farmers on their land.

Instead, most advocates agree that subsidies should be better targeted to family farms and to a healthy diet. Now, most of the subsidies primarily go to five commodities—corn, soy, wheat, cotton and rice. Perishables like fruits and vegetables receive very little assistance. With farm commodity prices at record high levels, it is agreed that those subsidies need to be ended. But farmers still need help. The subsidies will be shifted to expanded crop insurance and farm revenue programs. The devil is in the details.

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 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 monocrop farming while often doing little to help more diversified farms growing a variety of crops. Farmers in general don’t want a government handout and are concerned that direct subsidies say for vegetables might also 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.

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 that would strengthen anti-trust protections for farmers. Small-and medium-sized farmers across the U.S. have been driven out of business or are barely making ends meet partially because bigger companies 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 (those chickens raised for eating) operate under take-it-or-leave-it contracts. They must sign seven-year contracts that specify exactly how the chickens will be raised, from the amount of space each animal is allowed, to whether farmers must cut off their beaks, to the use of antibiotics.

Next on the menu?

The collapse of the supercommittee process raises many questions about the next steps for the farm bill. Many power brokers want to use the deals negotiated by the leaders as the starting point for moving forward. Reformers, however, hope that we are closer to the beginning point than to a completed deal.

Funding, of course, remains the biggest challenge. The Ag Committee leaders have proposed $23 billion in funding cuts over 10 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 needed to correct our food system.

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a member of the Agriculture Committee, has put forth a number of good proposals, including ones concerning dairy, farmers’ markets, and community-supported agriculture. Sen. Gillibrand has held numerous listening sessions across the state, primarily with farm groups, about the Farm Bill. She plans one in New York City in early January focusing on nutrition. However, like other rank-and-file members of the Committee, Sen. Gillibrand was not closely consulted during the recent negotiations.

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 generated a lot of support from community food advocates.

The local Food, Farms and Jobs Act, co-sponsored by Sen. Gillibrand and Rep. Jerrold Nadler, helps farmers and ranchers by addressing the production, processing, marketing and distribution architecture needed for farmers to access growing local and regional food markets. The bill assists consumers by improving access to healthy food. For instance, up to 15 percent of school lunch funding could be used to purchase local foods, and more support would be provided to organic farmers. The measure provides 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, highlights federal programs that help support economic opportunities for young and beginning farmers and ranchers.

The Food and Farm Bill is the single greatest influence on what we eat. It determines how billions are spent shaping our food system, from producer to consumer. We, in New York City, have an enormous stake in the Food and Farm Bill. Eight million of us spend $30 billion annually on food. It should be overhauled to help small farmers and rural development, make school lunches healthier, strengthen the food safety net for low-income Americans, promote local sustainable and organic food systems and tackle agriculture’s daunting environmental and conservation problems.