By Taylor Pate, Slow Food USA
This year, Slow Food USA has been focusing heavily on the Farm Bill, a piece of legislation that impacts issues from crop insurance and disaster assistance to nutrition assistance programs such as SNAP and the Senior Farmers’ Market Program (SNAP). With such a vast number of policy issues to tackle, certain key provisions may be neglected or altogether exempted. And with a new bill coming underway, radical policy changes such as “America’s Harvest Box” threaten longstanding nutrition assistance programs. One such as issue that has been on my mind and has rattled news headlines incessantly is equity, specifically that of racial and minority equity.
As noted by NSAC Policy Intern Noah McDonald in a recent blog series, the U.S. farming system was built and has flourished on structural racial inequality. Exploitation of slaves for their labor and agricultural expertise was used to pave the millions and millions of acres of arable land. Africans turned soil, so-called black gold, into an industry, growing the corn and grains that are now so heavily commoditized in our markets. But, although the main caretakers of the land, these laborers were endowed none of the land upon which they worked. With the passage of the Homestead Act in 1862, tribal lands and Mexican territory was taken from native peoples and distributed to around 1.6 million U.S. citizens, mostly white European immigrants.
Exploited farm labor is not a new phenomenon. The International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates that worldwide more than 3.5 million people work under forced labor conditions in agriculture alone. Oftentimes, immigrant farm workers are paid negligible wages, labor in unsafe working conditions, and aren’t provided healthcare benefits. Under forced migration and the need to provide for their families in their home countries, farm workers often persist in undertaking the work that no others will do. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers estimates that approximately 5% of all farm workers in the US are forced labor, many of which are immigrants.
KnowTheChain is a company that seeks to understand forced labor risks and global supply chains. In a recent report formulated based on research of food and beverage industries, the organization found that in order to address these injustices and risks, issues of traceability, purchasing, and recruitment policies and practices must be addressed. By understanding the supply chain of all of the products that ultimately end up in products on shelves, companies would be able to have a full picture of the scope of farm labor. Integrating strict labor standards or fully prohibiting forced labor would also help to address illegal labor practices, as well as monitoring recruitment practices, including indirect hiring of seasonal and migrant workers through third parties.
In the 1990s, Congress created the Outreach and Assistance to Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers program (“2051 program”). But, as mentioned by McDonald, this is the only program in the Farm Bill that seeks to address racial and ethnic discrimination towards farmers of color. It is clear that there must be policy action taken to address loan inaccessibility by people of color, land and resource rights, lack of technical assistance and support, and other forms of systemic discrimination that hinder the advancement of racial and ethnic minority farmers.
Many have compared the “Harvest Box” to the Blue Apron food delivery system. Although I’m not the biggest fan of these food delivery systems, Shelf stable commodities do not equate to fresh fruits and vegetables. Although the list of arguments for and against is long, here’s my two cents. For one, the welfare of the poor is completely dismissed, but rather, as noted in this Politico article, it’s about bolstering big ag and the corporate food industry. This system completely eliminates any autonomy of choice, but rather relegates those dependent on assistance to ready-to-eat cereal and shelf-stable milk. Nutritional outcomes are questionable and the vague details of the program do not exactly rally supporters. In a recent Food Politics article, Marion Nestle mentioned several issues cited by participants in the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations, a similar program that has been around since the 1970s, some of which included, cultural inappropriateness, poor quality, and induced dependency.
Ultimately, what would end up in boxes is surplus commodities that are not nutritionally viable. Local economies would suffer, which would include farmers markets and resultantly, small-scale farmers. And frankly, I think that this program is a very clear example of how much this administration values the some 46 million Americans that receive SNAP benefits, which is to say, hardly at all.
And frankly, it’s crucial to ask whether or not this is simply a ploy to cover up budget cuts to SNAP. With a proposal to cut SNAP by more than $213 billion over the next decade, I can’t help but wonder not just if, but when will more visceral jabs at other food assistance programs come.