On Tuesday, a broad range of farm, environmental, and other organizations came together to launch a coalition to change federal policies they say support an unfair, unhealthy, and environmentally destructive food system.
Most of those policies take shape every five years in the farm bill, and hearings and negotiations around the 2023 version of the mega-legislation are just getting started. About 150 people attended the Food Not Feed Summit in Washington, D.C, and many headed to Capitol Hill afterward to meet with lawmakers. Another 700 people were registered to view the event online.
“We are agriculture, animal welfare, academia, environment, faith, food, health and nutrition, social justice, and workers—and we’re all in this room together,” said Angela Huffman, co-founder of Farm Action, a host of the event. “It’s my hope that we’ll see the president of the United States sign his name on a farm bill that serves all of us, not just corporations.”
Huffman and other speakers pointed to the problematic nature of farm bill funds that flow almost entirely to growers of corn, soybeans, and other commodities through commodity and crop insurance programs. Currently, about 40 percent of U.S. corn and more than 70 percent of soybeans are turned into feed for animals raised in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). Because a handful of global corporations control the country’s meat industry, members of the coalition argue that the funding is effectively padding corporate profits while driving small farms out of business and supporting animal suffering and pollution caused by CAFOs.
By comparison, a very small slice of the overall farm bill funding pie goes to fruit and vegetable growers and small, diversified farms. Vegetable and pastured livestock farmers from several states including Kansas, North Carolina, and Ohio told the crowd that they struggle to access markets and fair prices and to get grants and other technical assistance from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
In an impassioned speech, Senator Cory Booker (D-New Jersey) connected those rural struggles to the challenges low-income consumers in urban areas—like the city of Newark, where he served as Mayor—face accessing healthy food. “Food deserts in New Jersey and farmers and ranchers in the Midwest, we are part of the same broken system that’s hurting all of our families,” he said.
To that end, one of his top priorities for the farm bill will be “massively scaling up” the Gus Schumacher Nutrition Incentive Program (GusNIP), which increases fruit and vegetable benefits for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) users, usually at farmers’ markets (and through produce prescriptions), sending additional dollars back to small farms.
Booker, a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, the committee that writes the farm bill, said his other priorities included more crop insurance options for fruit and vegetable farmers. He also wants to reform conservation programs, checkoff programs, and the Packers & Stockyards Act to shift dollars and power away from CAFOs and industrial meatpackers and toward smaller, diversified farms. Booker included many of those reforms in an initial package of four bills he introduced in the Senate last week.
However, while the bills suggest that action on the issues is at hand, they also point to the political elephant in the room: Booker has introduced all of the bills before, and none have gone anywhere. Similarly, many of the food system shifts the coalition at the Food Not Feed Summit are advocating for have been talked about through many farm bill cycles without making a real dent in the bill’s foundational funding structure.
Booker addressed that political stagnation head on, noting that many people tell him he’s unrealistic. “We have to build our coalition and fight, because I’m telling you right now, the interests that want to preserve the status quo are pouring—no exaggeration—billions of dollars into Washington,” he said.
Later, Bryn Bird, a young farmer from Bird’s Haven Farms in Ohio, described the challenge differently. Bird was getting ready to meet with lawmakers to talk about the challenges of selling fresh vegetables directly to customers through CSAs, farmers’ markets, and institutions when she noted, “Over two-thirds of the House Agriculture Committee [members] have not been through a farm bill [process], so there is a massive amount of education [ahead],” she said. “Who’s going to be the one educating them? The Farm Bureau, or us?”