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Food Advocacy on Capitol Hill: Slow Food USA’s COVID-19 Work and Ongoing Food Issues

Written by Sara S. Blomquist (SFYN USA Communications Team)

In media portrayals of environmental advocacy, we often see handmade signs at climate change rallies and hear catchy slogans. While this kind of advocacy through protest is essential to propelling movements forward, it isn’t the only way to make a difference. Much change occurs behind closed doors on Capitol Hill. Public Policy advocacy is vital to getting our messages into those rooms to achieve immediate and lasting change – especially now.

COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on most industries, including the food system. The pandemic has been particularly detrimental for already vulnerable communities like small-scale farmers, farmworkers and meatpacking and restaurant workers, many of whom are members of historically marginalized communities. Since the beginning of the COVID 19 pandemic, food advocates in the United States – including Slow Food USA’s Food and Farm Policy Steering Committee –– have been working tirelessly to protect these groups.

In March and April of this year, the Slow Food USA policy team signed on in support of crucial bills to protect small and mid-scale farmers and ranchers from the effects of COVID 19. Working with groups like the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC), Slow Food’s policy team worked to support  direct farmer relief in the CARES Act, the $2.2 trillion stimulus bill passed in March. Over the last few months, they have also signed on in support of essential bills like the Pandemic Child Hunger Prevention Act and the FarmersFeedingFamilies Coronavirus Response Act.  Notably, after SFUSA signed on to a letter of support for the Farm System Reform Act, that would lead to the end of CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations), more than 30 Slow Food Chapters followed suit and the letter ultimately gained more than 300 organizational sign-ons. To date, many of these bills have not yet been passed, but remain points of discussion in congressional committees.

Early policy work revealed gaping deficiencies in support for these vulnerable communities, not just during the pandemic, but in general. In an April letter that was addressed to US Representatives Nancy Pelosi (Democrat Speaker of the House) and Kevin McCarthy (House Republican Leader), Executive Director of Slow Food USA Anna Mulé cited key deficiencies in current food policy. Among the issues, Mulé noted the recent federal administrative efforts to reduce eligibility for SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly food stamps), the national nutrition program that served 38 million food-insecure people in 2019 alone. The SNAP ABAWD (Able-Bodied Adults without Dependents) rule states that able-bodied adults without children must meet certain requirements to receive SNAP. These requirements include being employed in some capacity or actively engaged in employment or job training. During a pandemic, this kind of requirement would mean thousands of people would be ineligible for SNAP benefits, given that 13.55 million Americans are unemployed. Slow Food USA policy committee chair Ed Yowell commented on how important SNAP benefits are, remarking that increasing the SNAP benefit to fight food insecurity and boost the economy is one of the biggest issues for the next government stimulus package.  

Moreover, COVID-19 relief bills have not done enough for undocumented immigrants in the US, who are crucial to the US economy, particularly the food system. Indeed, millions of undocumented immigrants sustain US agriculture. An article in the Los Angeles Times notes that undocumented immigrants are ineligible for most government aid. This emphasizes not only the difficulties for undocumented immigrants during times of national crisis, but also in times of personal need. Undocumented immigrants are still not eligible for SNAP. Slow Food’s COVID relief letter urged Congress to expand eligibility for key relief programs to undocumented workers, including Pandemic EBT (Electronic Benefits Transfer), which provides access to SNAP food security assurance for families whose children lost free and reduced-price school lunches when schools were closed because of the pandemic.  

Yowell emphasized governmental disingenuousness regarding undocumented immigrants in the food chain. “The government has declared them essential during the pandemic, meaning they have to work…so, they’re essential workers now, and we won’t deport them now, but as soon as they’re not essential, when the pandemic has passed… they’re going to be in the same place they were before the pandemic with this administration looking to deport them.” Yowell asserts that legislation for undocumented food and farm immigrant workers, and immigration reform in general, is an essential responsibility for food advocates.

Mulé’s letter, and much of Slow Food USA’s policy work, has focused on other essential food workers, too, including those working in meatpacking plants. Meatpacking workers have been on the front lines of infection during the pandemic, especially since the Trump administration used the Defense Production Act to order that meat processing plants remain open. Workers without adequate PPE are usually working in very close quarters in processing plants. Moreover, federal guidelines for plant safety are merely recommendations, and hence have been extremely ineffective in preventing the spread of infection. Indeed, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) states that the guidelines create “no new legal obligations” for processing plants. Consequently, Slow Food USA recognizes these dangerous conditions are a critical health and safety issue.

 Legislative processes are nearly as complex as food systems. It takes millions of people to grow, harvest, process, and package food. Too often, these “essential workers” are viewed as expendable, and as a result lack adequate healthcare and protection, which has especially grave implications during a pandemic. Slow Food’s main advocacy goal is to change how these workers are valued, treated and compensated. Food justice goes beyond securing access to food; it also seeks to guarantee dignity and safety for food workers.

So far, Slow Food USA has signed on in support of nearly 25 pieces of crucial food advocacy legislation that will help millions of US citizens and residents, and the work is only just beginning. Policy developments over the last few days include bills to combat the influence of large agricultural corporations, who have received most of the agricultural aid in the last year.

Despite all this work, it is undeniable that the arena of politics and policy work has been one surrounded by controversy and cynicism. Yowell shared his thoughts on this cynicism, and what message he had for the youth of America about policy and politics, especially near the 2020 presidential election. “I think personal action is always an incredibly important thing and I think the work that our supporters are doing in gardens and communities, even during the pandemic, is incredibly important… But I’ve been through a lot of elections, and I think this may be the most important one in which I will have had an opportunity to vote. I think that message can’t be lost because there’s so much at stake… I believe that Fair food is an essential issue in this election. We can’t allow personal distaste for politics and cynicism about politicians to be rationale for sitting this one out.”