Why the Farm Bill Matters

by guest blogger Amy Blankstein of Just Food, a non-profit that turns “food deserts” (i.e., neighborhoods underserved by supermarkets and other food retailers) into “islands of sustainability.”

I have a confession to make: I’m intimidated by the Farm Bill. Luckily, some of my colleagues at Just Food get it (as much as it can be gotten) and can take the time to explain it to me. As much as I’d like to avoid thinking about the Farm Bill altogether and just focus on the incredibly rewarding projects we work on to connect local rural and urban farmers and New York City consumers, ignoring the Farm Bill is not an option for me—it has a tremendous impact on my own life and on the lives of the thousands of people who participate in Just Food’s programs. If you eat food—and I’m guessing that you do—ignoring the Farm Bill is not an option for you either.

The term “Farm Bill” just doesn’t capture the breadth of influence that this piece of legislation has on the day-to-day lives of not only farmers, but also eaters from farm country to big cities like New York and everywhere in between throughout the United States as well as internationally. In fact, a lot of people, including Michael Pollan, have suggested that we rename it the “Food and Farm Bill.”

The Farm Bill is a collection of legislative farm and food acts that come up for renewal roughly every 5 years—the last of which was enacted in 2008 and represented $284 billion of the federal budget during that period. The Farm Bill sets priorities and provides funding for everything from crop subsidies, farmland preservation, international food aid and exports, nutrition entitlements (such as food stamps), lending to farms, rural infrastructure investment, research, forest protection and restoration, energy promotion (think biofuels and ethanol), organic agriculture, livestock, crop insurance and disaster assistance, and commodities trading. Head spinning yet?

Normally, the road to the final Farm Bill Act takes about a year or so. Stakeholders from all facets of the food system have ample opportunity to make their voices heard by calling their representatives or providing testimony to the House and Senate Agriculture Committees, which ultimately decide the direction and funding for the Farm Bill, which is then voted on by both legislative bodies.

This year however, that noisy, democratic, and lengthy process has been upended, and advocates on all sides of the food system are scrambling to get their opinion heard. Why? Well, remember all that bluster a couple of months ago about Congress not being able to get its act together to pass the 2011 budget? Remember the “Super Committee” that was then charged with cutting $1.3 trillion from the budget by Thanksgiving if Congress still couldn’t come to a consensus this fall?

As a result of all that gridlock, democracy is on hiatus. The Super Committee has tasked the Agriculture Committee with proposing $23 billion dollars in cuts to Farm Bill legislation—now. To make matters worse, just four committee members—the Senate Chair and Ranking Member and the House Chair and Ranking Member—get to shape the proposed cuts. And by the way, if the Super Committee doesn’t agree with those cuts, it can completely ignore them and make their own.

As discouraging as all this may sound, there are still ways that you can make your voice heard. Here’s what you can do:

  1. Reach out to the folks on the Super Committee, especially if they happen to be one of your representatives (WA, MN, MA, CA, SC, MD, AZ, OH, PA, TX, MI). Actually, while we’re at it, contact them even if they don’t represent your state. As citizens, we’ve been denied input in the decision-making process this year, so for the time being, the members of the Super Committee are your representatives.
  2. Make sure that your federal representatives are aware of the kind of farm and food system you’d like to see. Some of our representatives have already introduced bills that support the viability of sustainable family farms, local foods, opportunities for beginning farmers, and access to healthy food for everyone, regardless of their income. Let them know that you support the following bills:

The Local Farms, Food, and Jobs Act (S. 1773, H.R. 3286)
The Community Agriculture Development and Jobs Act (H.R. 3225)
The Expanding Access to Farmers Markets Act (S. 1593)
The Beginning Farmer Rancher Opportunity Act of 2011 [H.R. 3236

Okay, maybe I’m not as intimidated as I thought I was; maybe I’m just really angry. I’m going to give them a piece of my mind—won’t you join me?

Amy Blankstein is the grants and communications manager for Just Food. She is also an enthusiastic omnivore and home cook, a former magazine and book editor, and a member of her local CSA.

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