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From organic farming to affording groceries: How the Farm Bill shapes GR's food landscape

Emma García, co-executive director Access of West Michigan.

Why should you care about the Farm Bill if you're not a farmer? Well, for starters, the legislation that's expected to be renewed next year could seriously harm farmers' markets and smaller farms. Leaders in Grand Rapids' food and agriculture scene explain what this massive bill could mean for our city, and why residents need to be paying attention.
Less than two percent of Americans are farmers – the other 98 percent aren’t staying awake nights thinking about the Farm Bill. Maybe they should be.

The federal Farm Bill is a major force behind the problematic industrial food system we have today. As lobbyists work to funnel government subsidies into commodity crops like corn, wheat and soy, Americans are gaining weight and losing their health to food products processed with corn syrups, white flours and genetically modified soy. Current healthy food trends are making a difference for people with adequate income and access to good foods. People without access to healthy foods are experiencing diet-related health issues at epidemic proportions.

Signed into law in 1933 during the Great Depression, the first Farm Bill was part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. The omnibus, multi-year legislation, which Congress renews about every five years, has gone on to have a tremendous impact on farming livelihoods, how the United States grows its food and what kind of food is grown.

The bill governs a wide range of agricultural and food programs across the country—including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program [SNAP], promoting U.S.-grown food abroad and subsidized crop insurance—which translates to a piece of legislation that has a major impact on everything from trade and local economies to public health and the environment.

The 2014 Farm Bill is in effect until September 2018 and has a Michigan connection. U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow [D-Michigan] chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee, which oversees the bill.
 

The Farm Bill and food for all

Why should more Americans pay attention to the Farm Bill? Because it does more than subsidize farmers. Federal food assistance programs also get their funding from the Farm Bill. In fact, 79 percent of the 2014 Farm Bill budget was allocated for nutrition, which included the SNAP, commonly known as food stamps. Even more importantly, the 2014 Farm Bill cut SNAP benefits by more than $8 billion, reducing benefits for 850,000 households.

Emma GarciaThese cuts hurt Grand Rapids families. “The decrease in SNAP users in Kent County is directly in proportion to the [food] pantry increase,” says Emma Garcia, co-executive director of  Access of West Michigan, a local nonprofit that advocates for better food access, improved health and nutrition in the community, and ending poverty.  “The reduction in funds reflects the larger food system’s lower regulations, not providing high quality foods. The longer-term outcomes will be seen in our community’s health — more adults and kids with type 2 diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease.”

Garcia explains that even though Access is working with local food pantries to offer more fresh produce and whole foods, the bulk of pantry food is corporate food waste. “People don’t see that most charitable food is coming from Coca-Cola, Pepsi and other big food producers. The conversation is no longer about starvation and bleak hunger but about malnourishment.”

Our Kitchen Table (OKT) is a local non-profit that builds food justice through gardening programs, advocacy, education, and the Southeast Area Farmers’ Market. OKT’s staff has seen the result of these cuts in the families they work with and patrons of the market.

“The shortcomings of the 2014 Farm Bill are that fewer and fewer people are able to tap into food assistance resources for help as relates to food insecurity,” says Lisa Oliver-King, OKT executive director. “I’ve seen evidence locally of folks noting the decrease in the amount of dollars they have available to them. Women with children and seniors note that the amount is very small. The Double Up Food Bucks program doubles the amount of Michigan produce they can buy at the farmers’ market and so is important. The reality is, shopping at a farmers’ market can take them a longer way than a grocery store.”

Lisa Oliver-King
Cynthia Price, chair and past director of the
Greater Grand Rapids Food Systems Council, concurs. “If there was one point I could make to folks in the general public, it's that the Farm Bill doesn't only affect farmers but is where SNAP is located,” she says. “In the last go-round, they tried to separate this, and that would be a political mistake, so we should fight against that. I do think that there is still widespread poverty in this area, though, so further [SNAP] cuts could be disastrous.”

The 2014 Farm Bill and local food systems

Double Up Food Bucks is one of the programs that U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow [D-Mich.] worked to fund while drafting the 2014 Farm Bill. She also worked to fund other important innovations in the bill’s budget. These innovations help new farmers get started, help existing farmers to transition into organic farming, provide smaller farmers access to crop insurance, and support specialty crops.

According to a fact sheet handed out by Stabenow’s staff at an April 12 meeting on the Farm Bill in Lansing, the Farmers’ Market and Local Food Promotion Program has funded 33 farmers’ markets and local food projects across Michigan totaling more than $2.1 million investments since 2014.

Local farmer Katie Brandt owns Groundswell Farm in Zeeland with her husband, Tom Cary. (Brandt also serves as educational programs manager of Michigan State University’s Student Organic Farm Organic Farmer Training Program.) “The programs our farm participated in helped us purchase a hoop house for season extension, cover cropping, a pollinator border and monitoring water use for irrigation,” she says. “The 2014 Farm Bill also allows diverse producers to apply for crop insurance. We’re located in a flood zone and we’re now able to get crop insurance. In the past there was nothing available.”

Like many small, West Michigan farmers, Brandt and Cary are committed to making healthy foods accessible to all. Other funded programs, like Double Up Food Bucks, Senior Project Fresh and being able to accept SNAP dollars for Community Supported Agriculture shares, help them to honor that commitment. “Programs funding specialty crop fruits and vegetables mean we can grow the kinds of healthy foods we want people to eat,” Brandt says.

Groundswell Farm owners Katie Brandt and Tom Cary their son, Leland. Photo by Sara Cozolino PhotographyAnother recipient of a hoop house grant is New City Farm, a program of the New City Neighbors, a nonprofit that works to empower city youth. The farm serves Grand Rapids’ Kent Hills neighborhood, where 90 percent of households with children qualify for free and reduced school lunches. “We participated in Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) High Tunnel grant,” says Lance Kraai, farm director. “The hoop house increases our yield and extends our growing season — we could grow year-round if we wanted to. We did grow June through October. Now, we grow from May to December.”

Through the Farm Bill-funded Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program, New City Farm purchased a wood-fired pizza oven. Selling pizzas at its patio café and pop-up restaurant both increases farm revenue and expands the farm’s youth employment program. “We have a licensed commercial kitchen and have prepared soups for the past two years. The pizza oven is the next chapter,” Kraai says. “We’re also using a SARE youth educator grant to hire high school students to lead cooking and gardening clubs after school. The grant helps fund salaries for those youth employees. When they teach something, it makes them more excited about what they’re doing. They take pride in being able to show off to the younger students. And, they learn more as they teach.”

The 2014 Farm Bill also has programs that support farmers’ markets, encourage urban grocery and corner stores to offer fresh produce, and funds other programs that help increase access to healthy foods for vulnerable populations, such as older individuals and those with income challenges. One local example is the YMCA Veggie Van, which vends affordable fruits and vegetables in Grand Rapids neighborhoods where residents have little access to healthy foods.

“I think (the 2014) Farm Bill policy has helped Michigan farmers somewhat more than in the past. The new and beginning farmers and ranchers program has helped some great farmers get started, so that's a plus,” says Price, of the Greater Grand Rapids Food Systems Council. “The concentration on specialty crops, which I always refer to sarcastically as ‘what we eat,’ has been beneficial. The concentration on research has certainly helped food systems people, though I think most of that money has gone to researching things that aren't agro-ecological or sustainable over the long term.”

In recent decades, food justice advocates have viewed the Farm Bill as a gift to the huge factory farms that have gobbled up traditional farmers, spit out nutrient-poor processed foods and profited on the backs of those who have nowhere to spend food assistance dollars other than corner liquor stores and gas station markets. The 2014 Farm Bill has made some important forays into supported organics and local food systems as well as creating programs that address food apartheid, which can be defined as the intentional, systemic marketing and distribution of profitable, nutrient-poor, disease-causing foods to income-challenged neighborhoods receiving the most food assistance dollars.

“There have been some steps to support smaller, particularly urban, farmers. That funding was made mandatory in the last Farm Bill, which I advocated along with many, many others, so that was a big victory,” Price says. “Because everyone is always thinking in terms of economic impacts in a capitalist system, the bigger the farming practice, the more it is likely to be supported. This has to change.”

What’s next?

At the April 12 meeting in Lansing, Jacqlyn Schneider, Stabenow’s deputy staff director, started the conversation by stating, “It’s an interesting time to be writing a Farm Bill. We’ve seen a big transition in Congress and a big transition in the White House. In the ag space, we have always been very bipartisan confident but it is going to be a tricky year. We don’t know what is going to happen.”

 

A forgone conclusion was that Farm Bill programs would be cut – and that the most likely cuts would be to the innovative programs supporting local food systems, smaller farmers, organics, and increased food access in lower income neighborhoods. “It’s a big challenge,” Schneider says. “(These programs) only have temporary funding. We will have to fight to keep current programs in place.”

U.S. Sen. Debbie StabenowMost likely, additional cuts will also further reduce SNAP benefits. As fewer people can access SNAP dollars, more will turn to food pantries. At Access of West Michigan, Garcia notes that if GOP-proposed block grant funding replaces funding now covered by the Farm Bill, the reality will be that the funding will be substantially reduced from current levels. These reductions will put free school breakfast and lunch programs, as well as school meal quality, in jeopardy, thus impacting some of the most vulnerable individuals – children – and their access to nutrition.

Garcia also fears that West Michigan’s philanthropic nature could successfully prop up a failing food system, a food system that promotes the highly processed, low nutrient foods degrading the health of all Americans – especially its most vulnerable populations. Perpetuating more and more charitable food could be a roadblock to building a food system that eliminates the underlying causes of food apartheid and the need for charitable food. “The majority of pantry funding is private dollars. As cuts are made, we’ll probably see growth in private dollars,” she says. “The fear is that as waves of more private money pour in, it will keep us from building bigger goals, of striving for a vital food system that provides all people access to healthy food.”

“I think these times are also an opportunity to be unified,” she continues. “The level of fear in our country has escalated so much. If we allow that fear to be what takes root, then our responses are going to be in reaction and not the creative, unified mentality that thinks more long-term. Let’s investigate what are we really doing with our money, time and volunteering and come up with a creative solution.”

Make your voice heard

While Michigan’s large-scale, traditional farms growing commodity crops will likely continue to get good funding from the 2018 Farm Bill, it's not boding well for farmers’ markets and smaller farms like New City Farm and Groundswell. This will directly impact all Grand Rapids area residents by reducing options for healthy, local food. If the new bill makes cuts to nutrition programs, food insecurity in Grand Rapids’ income-challenged neighborhoods will increase, as will the very costly health issues that accompany it, such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease, asthma, and behavioral problems.

The Farm Bill The U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee has already begun the process of crafting the 2018 Farm Bill. Stabenow will host an official Farm Bill hearing with Sen. Pat Roberts [R-Kansas] at the Michigan State University Saginaw Valley Research and Extension Center at 10 a.m. on May 6. This will be an opportunity for citizens to provide their input. To take part, RSVP MIRSVP@ag.senate.gov or submit comments to www.agriculture.senate.gov/farm-bill-input.

A working writer since 1992, Estelle Slootmaker is happiest writing about social justice, wellness and the arts. She also writes poetry and has a book in the works. Stelle serves as communications manager for Our Kitchen Table and chairs the City of Wyoming Tree Commission (The Tree Amigos). Her favorite pastimes are going to her husband Eddie Killowatt’s gigs with Cabildo, hanging out with her five grown children and dancing to new wave tunes when the Pyramid Scheme hosts Retro D’Luxe. You can contact Stelle at stellecheck@msn.com or via her website, www.constellations.biz.

Portraits of Emma Garcia and Lisa Oliver-King by Bird + Bird Studio
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