by Rebecca Kaye with the Slow Food USA Policy Committee
Public policy impacts every aspect of the food chain, from what and how food is produced, to environmental impact, farmers, food chain workers, and of course, to eaters.
Before you turn the page on phrases like “public policy” and “environmental impact,” let us break down the key issues and simplify the confusing terms for you. In order to reach our vision of good, clean and fair food for all, we must be prepared to advocate for policies that support these values and against policies that undermine them.
Child Nutrition Reauthorization (CNR)
Every five years, Congress has the opportunity to improve child nutrition and school meal programs. The landmark Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 expired at the end of September in 2015. Because the House and Senate did not come to an agreement, CNR legislation has not been passed and the existing programs continue to run as authorized in 2010.
Big items of debate include block grants (where states operate their own school food programs, with their own rules), free school breakfasts, strengthening the WIC (women, infants and children) nutrition program, summer meals for eligible children, and local farm-to-table school food sourcing. The CNR is currently not a high-profile concern in Washington and likely will not happen this year.
The Farm Bill is a massive piece of federal legislation that is supposed to be passed every four years; new legislation is actively being planned in Congress for 2018. The Farm Bill consists of agricultural programs (including organic programs, new farmer development, crop insurance and subsidies, conservation, rural development, and agricultural trade) and nutrition programs (primarily SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known as food stamps).
In December 2016, the House Agriculture Committee released a report called “The Past, Present, and Future of SNAP.” The report overwhelmingly shows that the program is a successful tool against hunger for low-income families, has low rates of fraud and is running under budget. Many Republicans favor converting SNAP into a block grant program for states to operate. We worry that block grants for nutrition programs would lead to inequitable access to these programs across states.
In the run up to the Farm Bill, an important agricultural marker bill (a bill intended to become part of a larger piece of legislation) is the Processing Revival and Intrastate Meat Exemption (PRIME) Act. The PRIME Act would allow states to bypass federal inspection in custom meat slaughter if the meat is directly distributed to individuals, hotels, restaurants, or grocery stores within the state. This would be good news for smaller, local meat producers. Federal inspection requirements can be expensive and difficult to manage, especially at a small scale. The PRIME Act would be a big step toward supporting small, sustainable producers.
Farmworkers and Immigration Policy
Immigration policy can also have a profound effect on our food chain. Between 50-75% of hired farmworkers on American farms are undocumented immigrants. Heightened immigration restrictions and deportations could have a negative impact on our food production, particularly of labor-intensive, sustainably produced specialty crops.
The H-2A visa allows agricultural employers to legally hire immigrant workers. However, the program is criticized by farmers for its high cost and excessive red tape. Only 10% of immigrant farmworkers work under the H-2A program.
Presently, there are two H-2A reform bills in the House of Representatives: the Family Farm Relief Act and the BARN (Better Agricultural Resources Now) Act. They would improve access, reduce red tape, transfer the program from the Department of Labor to the Department of Agriculture, increase the duration of H-2A farmworker employment, extend the program to dairy farmers, and help provide better farmworker housing. While these bills would not solve all immigrant issues, H-2A reform could help more immigrant farmworkers work without constant fear of deportation.
In the Senate, the Agricultural Worker Program Act would protect undocumented farmworkers from deportation. They would be eligible for a “blue card” if they worked in agriculture for at least 100 days in each of the past two years. Those who maintain a blue card for three or five years (depending on hours worked) would then be eligible to adjust to a green card which could lead to legal, permanent residency.
What to Do
As a national organization with members and supporters throughout the country, Slow Food USA is uniquely positioned to help make public food and farm policy support incorporated into our principles and values. As we work with like-minded organizations, stay tuned for tangible ways to advocate for public policy that will make a difference. Let’s work together for good, clean and fair food for all!