The Farm Bill shapes our food and farm system in the U.S., and, through the Nutrition Title, helps millions of Americans afford food. But with nutrition assistance programs like SNAP vulnerable to cuts, and rural food access weakened by decades of corporate consolidation, how well is the Farm Bill really serving eaters? In Episode Five of the Farm Bill Uprooted, hear from IATP's Erin McKee VanSlooten, Kate Hansen of the Center for Rural Affairs and Marcus Grignon of the Rural Coalition, on what's needed to rebuild community-based food systems and create a Farm Bill that's by and for the people.
And I think what's really interesting is like, a truly community-based food and farm system will support both small farmers and, you know, nutrition access at the same time. And I feel like, if we can invest in those positive community-based food systems, it will lift us all up. At the same time.
00:00:33 Lilly Richard
From the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, I'm Lilly Richard, and this is part five of a six-part podcast series: The Farm Bill Uprooted. This podcast is made possible by the generous support of our listeners. If you'd like to support Uprooted, go to IATP.org/donate.
In our first four episodes, we covered some of the ways Farm Bill policy impacts food producers, the environment and rural communities. But the U.S. Farm Bill is important to everyone in the country, because everyone eats. Historically, it's been hard for everyday people to engage with the Farm Bill process, or even understand what's going on. Most of our individual choices about food are made at a consumer level, but on a large scale, the Farm Bill helps determine what choices are even available to us, and for many people, it's vital for being able to access food at all.
The biggest portion of Farm Bill spending, 76% under the current bill, goes toward the Nutrition Title. That section covers the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, and a number of similar programs that help low-income people access or afford food. Although the Farm Bill is divided into 12 titles that designate different categories of spending, the truth is, it's all connected. The way the Commodity Title is structured is connected to agriculture's environmental impact, and to which farmers are successful, and to what types of food are available and affordable to the average consumer. Consolidation in our food system has harmed smaller farmers, but it has also pushed out rural grocery stores and small businesses and created food deserts across the country. And the Nutrition Title is a lifeline for millions across the food system. Many of the people growing our food, or doing USDA funded research, or making podcasts about the Farm Bill are currently or have been recipients of some form of food assistance.
For this episode, I talked with IATP's Erin McKee VanSlooten, Kate Hansen of the Center for Rural Affairs, and Marcus Grignon from the Rural Coalition, about what it means to build or rebuild community-based food systems, and how well the Farm Bill is working for eaters and how we can make it better.
My name is Erin McKee VanSlooten, and I am the Community Food Systems program director at IATP, the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. I've been at IATP for coming up on 11 years, I think, and I've been engaged in the community food systems work for most of that time. And really what our program is trying to do, the long-term goal is to build vibrant community-based food systems that give all people access to sufficient, safe, culturally appropriate and nutritious food. And we also are focused on developing local food supply chains that allow small to mid-scale farmers to access a variety of new markets. So really what we're working towards is a decentralized local food system that is accountable to and controlled by the Community members that are depending on it and that food will be produced and distributed in a manner that builds equity, justice and resiliency in both policy and practice.
So if the Farm Bill is a newer area of work for me, so I have done more work on policy at the state level in Minnesota. But I have learned a lot from my partners and kind of what their priorities are for the Farm Bill. And some really important priorities that I'm hearing from my partners who are working on the ground are the need to invest in infrastructure for small to mid-sized processors and farmers and market development for small to mid-sized farmers. And then linking nutrition and food access to really bring the amount of investment in SNAP allocations up to the level that makes it really meaningful. During COVID they increased the amount that people could access and that was huge for — it actually reduced hunger in the nation because of that support. And then now that the COVID benefits are lapsing, that support is going away and hunger is going up. So really increasing the amount available for SNAP. We know that that program works and it's very impactful. So that would be a huge priority in this Farm Bill.
So first some background on SNAP. The original food stamps program was started in 1939 with voucher cards, literal stamps that could be used towards surplus commodities. That program was ended in 1943 as the Second World War reduced both unemployment in the U.S. and the food surplus. Of course, hunger didn't disappear, and after a few successful pilot programs, food stamps were brought back in the 1960s as part of the Farm Bill. The program has been through many changes over the years, including being rebranded as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program in the 2008 Farm Bill. These days, SNAP recipients receive their monthly benefits on an electronic benefits transfer, or EBT, card, which is a bit like a debit card that you can only use for groceries. It can't be used for prepared foods or household items, or alcohol or cigarettes. Households with incomes less than 130% of the federal poverty line may be eligible for SNAP, but there are other requirements, too, that vary by state. Undocumented immigrants can't receive SNAP, and neither can full time students, with some exceptions. Unemployed people can get SNAP benefits for three months, but beyond that, SNAP recipients need to meet minimum work requirements; generally 30 hours per week, unless they have small children or are disabled or are over 60 years old. And proving that you qualify typically requires a lot of documentation that needs to be renewed regularly.
In 2021, 41 million Americans used SNAP, which is different from some other Farm Bill programs because it's funded as an entitlement and is permanently authorized. This means that people's benefits won't be interrupted even with the current Farm Bill set to expire at the end of September. That also means that new applicants don't get rejected due to lack of funds, the same way conservation program applicants might be. But SNAP funding often goes up and down depending on the state of the economy, so the total amount of benefits participants receive each month might change. Congress can also change eligibility requirements, either to increase access or to close people out. At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Congress passed an emergency increase in SNAP benefits, and many states eased their eligibility requirements. But the additional SNAP benefits and flexibility were rolled back Earlier this year, reducing the average household's benefits by $82 per month, with some losing as much as $250 per month. The average food assistance amount is now just $6 per person per day, even as food costs have risen by 5% in just the last year. This change has thrown many back into food insecurity and increased the strain on local food shelves struggling to fill the gap between community food needs and what's covered by SNAP.
The cheapest and most available foods tend to be less healthy: processed foods made by big food companies using those underpriced commodities subsidized and incentivized by other parts of the Farm Bill. For eaters trying to get by on $6 a day or less, choosing these foods is sometimes the only way to get enough calories to survive. SNAP is an extremely important and impactful program serving some of the most vulnerable populations and providing a bridge for families going through hard times. Anti-hunger advocacy groups like the Food Research and Action Center are focusing their Farm Bill efforts on a series of bills that expand and strengthen the program. We’ll link to their platform in the show notes.
Pundits sometimes frame the Nutrition Title as the portion of the Farm Bill geared toward urban populations, while the other titles appeal to rural interests. But there's hunger and inequality in every part of the country, and SNAP participation rates are actually higher in rural areas, which is tied to many of the other ways that rural economies and food systems have been weakened in the past few decades.
00:09:38 Kate Hansen
So my name is Kate Hansen. I am a senior policy associate with the Center for Rural Affairs, and our mission is to establish strong rural communities, social and economic justice, environmental stewardship, and genuine opportunity for all, while engaging people in decisions that affect the quality of their live and the future of their communities. So I would point to the titles of the Farm Bill as the first indication of how broad and impactful this legislation is to rural areas and and frankly a lot of parts of this country. There's a title of Rural Development. There's a Nutrition Title, which is a very significant – the largest dollar amount title of the Farm Bill. And a large part of that is SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. We know that SNAP is important to our communities as well. There was a recent American Community Survey that showed approximately 16% of rural household use SNAP benefits. In comparison, only 13% of metro households do the same.
As rural economies have been hollowed out by market consolidation and the loss of Main Street businesses, it's become harder for those who still live there to find well-paying jobs to afford the rising cost of food, housing and everything else. And in many cases, it's been harder to access food at all, as rural markets and grocery stores have closed, creating food deserts where people need to travel more than 10 or even 20 miles to get groceries. On top of strengthening SNAP, rebuilding rural food systems can mean supporting the return of small businesses and food processors that, like small farmers, often have trouble accessing funds or face technical and administrative barriers. Programs under the Farm Bill's Rural Development Title are meant to help address those challenges, although, like other Farm Bill programs, they need some work. Here's Kate again:
In 2006, we helped stand up a program called the Rural Micro Entrepreneur Assistance Program, which helps rural small business owners across the country. And RMAP, or the rural micro Entrepreneur Assistance Program, supports the development and ongoing success of rural micro entrepreneurs and micro enterprises. So these are direct loans and grants that are provided to what are called micro enterprise development organizations, and I mention that because we are one. And then we can get those resources out to smaller scale, micro-entrepreneurs, and that is folks that, they've got a rural sole proprietorship or they're a business with fewer than 10 employees. So we're really capturing that sort of small and emerging small business owner.
This program, RMAP, as I mentioned, the center was very closely involved with getting this created and it really means a lot to us. And so we have identified a few ways to make some policy changes how to make it work better. One is to raise the maximum loan size that's available to the entrepreneurs, and that is largely related to inflation. It was created in the 2008 Farm Bill, the maximum loan size then was what it is now 15 years later and it's $50,000. So we'd like to see that raised to $75,000. Just knowing what some of these folks are dealing with on the ground. We'd also like to provide greater flexibility to the entrepreneurs that need to renovate their business locations. There are plenty of Main Street businesses that could be revitalized and used for businesses, but currently you cannot do new construction with RMAP. And so we'd like to modify the prohibition on new construction within the program to allow for renovation of existing buildings.
That makes sense.
Thank you. We think so too.
The issues facing local food systems and eaters across the country can also be exacerbated by different social, economic and historical factors. Many of these factors are outside of the Farm Bills purview, but provide important context. As we touched on in our previous episodes, the establishment of the United States, and our agriculture system in particular, involved the violent colonization and mass displacement of the native tribes already living here. Many indigenous people moved to reservations and later to cities where their traditional food systems were severely disrupted. Many reservations today share a lot of the same food access issues as other rural areas, along with high poverty rates and some jurisdictional challenges around tribal authority and Farm Bill implementation. I talked with Marcus Grignon, a hemp farmer, policy advocate at the Rural Coalition and member of the Menominee Tribe, who's been working on rebuilding local food systems for years, about some of the challenges facing rural and tribal food systems and all of the pieces that need to come together in order for the system to serve eaters, producers and the community.
00:15:05 Marcus Grignon
[Speaking Menominee] Hello everyone. I'm going to speak. My people know me as Kes Pih Soh Mekek or Swift Otter; I was named Marcus Grignon by my parents. I'm a member of the Menominee Indian Tribe in Wisconsin, and I've been working on Farm Bills for a little over a decade. This will be my third Farm Bill I'm working on right now. And so, I got appointed to be an economic development advisor for my tribe in 2010 and that was to basically build a full-service grocery store on our reservation. Basically, we're living in a food desert, and the majority of the food that was coming in was either like packaged, prepackaged, not really anything fresh or nutritious, and then anybody that wanted to buy groceries, they had to travel like 15 minutes away. And so, a lot of folks were, you know, just going to the gas station and buying whatever they could and then that was it. So, Hot Pockets, Chef Boyardee, you know, things like that.
So, we were very successful in getting a grocery store in 2010. And one of the things that I made sure as an economic development advisor was that when there comes an opportunity where tribal people are making their own products, and they're approved by the state and you know all that to where they can be on the shelves, then you start carrying tribal products. I'm happy to say that within the last two years, we've gotten more tribal vendors in the grocery store. And it's just really nice, after how many years of working and trying to get this thing done, we finally have that.
So, when it comes to Farm Bill and tribes, you know, one of the biggest things is always the nutrition title. Within that piece, there's this thing called FDIPR: Food Distribution on Indian Reservation Program. And one of the things that the Native Farm Bill Coalition is really adamant about is they built this pilot program in the 2018 Farm Bill to say that if a tribe wanted to take full control over their food distribution program on their reservation, then they can go into what they call it a 638 Contract, which means it's just a contract that gives the tribe full authority over a certain program. So, for food distribution, they would basically have the ability to buy food where they want to buy food from and also secure certain commodities that they think would be beneficial to the community.
One of the tribes that was picked for the pilot was my tribe, Menominee. And so, what we did with our FDIPR 638 contract is we built a tribal elder food box, where we basically source all the food that comes in the tribal elder food box from local vendors. We try to make it a priority for tribal vendors, but the issue is that tribal vendors are still early stage of development, or they don't have enough capacity to fulfill the boxes. But if there was an opportunity to increase the program, make it permanent, maybe add a couple more million dollars to it, then you have the opportunity where, you know, a farmer feels comfortable about, you know, growing X number of plants or taking care of X number of chickens or cattle, you know, livestock, for instance. And ensuring that they have a market to take it because they're not going to take on all these extra responsibilities for more acreage or for more livestock if they don't have a market. So, 638 Contract is a big one for tribes and for the Native Farm Bill Coalition that's our partner.
Rebuilding local and tribal food systems requires consistent investment all along the supply chain, from eaters to producers to distributors. As Marcus explained, it takes time for local producers to increase their capacity, and uncertain markets or contracts can create big risks for farmers trying to plan ahead. Procurement contracts for institutions, like schools and hospitals, that serve a lot of meals are one way to reduce the risk inherent in agricultural markets, while also providing access to high quality, healthy food for children.
For us, it's really about procurement. And what I mean about procurement is, like, you look at school systems, you look at institutions. You know, their procurement policies are really based around, they need to go through, like, Sodexo or somebody else like that. A lot of the food that's being served to the children and the youth in our schools is coming from a very large corporation, whereas what about an opportunity where we create a supply chain that's all local or regional — have X percentage of their food that they purchase come from American local farmers.
Just like most shoppers and eaters, institutions like schools and hospitals typically look for the cheapest prices when sourcing their food, but when they receive funding specifically for procuring local foods, that investment has ripple effects on the regional economy. In Minnesota, IATP has been supporting and advocating for Farm to School programs for over a decade. In our joint evaluation with the University of Minnesota of the state’s 2021 Farm to School grant program, we found that the Department of Agriculture's $300,000 investment in local food for schools generated over $1.2 million in economic impact on the state's economy. In different states, cities and regions, different procurement policies have been tried, like Chicago's Good Food Purchasing Initiative or the Menominee tribal elder box program that Marcus described. Future Farm Bills could build on the lessons learned from these successes to provide funding and set rules for government procurement that would strengthen local economies rather than reinforcing the power of large food companies.
There are also ways to link Nutrition Title programs to local farmers’ markets, which not only support small producers, but can also help SNAP recipients’ money go further, so they're not stuck with the impossible choice of healthy food versus enough food. In Minnesota, the Market Bucks program allows SNAP recipients to use their benefits at farmers’ markets and will match up to $10 in spending with an additional $20 that can be spent on produce and other SNAP-eligible products. There are lots of other community food system initiatives happening around the country at every level, from state-funded programs like Market Bucks to community gardens, mutual aid projects and food shares.
But these lifesaving programs are still a patchwork. Rural economies everywhere are struggling, and at the national level, there are still too many people falling through the cracks, and people who are hungry, busy and overburdened don't have the time or ability to organize and participate in political advocacy the same way that, say, huge agribusiness firms with highly paid lobbyists can. A complicated, opaque Farm Bill process makes it even harder for everyday people to engage and have a say in what our food system looks like. Here's Erin again.
I think that there's so much in the Farm Bill that it's hard for us to lift up priority issues because we're competing against so many things because it's such a giant bill. So, to kind of make sure that you're getting real visibility for issues that you care about, it kind of takes constant engagement. And that's really difficult for just community members on the ground, and especially for people, just regular people, who do depend on our farm and food system but don't necessarily, you know, watch this policy process really closely to know how to engage and submit their priorities to their members. It's really tricky. So, I feel like that's a challenge that just the process is so huge and cumbersome. I mean, I think that it really does get down to those community members having a voice and being able to engage in the process that designs the food and farm system that they're depending on and creating ways actually in the design of the system itself that it includes community voice as an essential part of the process.
Well, I think people always are disillusioned about politics. And so, why should they care about the Farm Bill? Well, they're like, oh, well, I'm not on food stamps or anything else, but I'm sure that there's probably a program, whether it be nutrition, education, or commodities or procurement that ties back to either your children, your nephew, your grandchildren, your nieces, you know. You have to think about it that food is like one of the biggest things when it comes to living a healthy life — like clean water and food. All the funding that is used to ensure that we have the proper tools we need to address these issues are in the Farm Bill.
Yeah, I think I just want to say that engagement is really important here. Farm Bill discussions and negotiations are certainly in full swing, but the window has not closed to engage or to tell your lawmakers what you care about or what you'd like to see this cycle.
Yeah, I think the biggest thing that's important to us is really working for the community to have control over their food system, since all of us also depend on the food and farm systems around us. But in a lot of cases, the community members, who are depending on that food and farm system, don't get a say in how it's structured or the decisions that are made around that system. We have community members that are really invested in protecting their local environment, or who value the community-based food system because they want to invest in their local community and keep that money circulating in their local community. We have community members who want access to culturally appropriate food items. So, they want to support a local farmer who's growing foods that they are used to in their culture and that they can include in their cooking traditions. So, there are a lot of different reasons why different communities might have different priorities, and they need some way to express that in the decision making in order for that food system to reflect what they want.
For example, we have a lot of very amazing anti-hunger groups that have been engaging on nutrition access in the Farm Bill for a long time. We also have a lot of wonderful farm groups that have been engaging, and our hope is that we can bring all of these groups together so that we can coordinate, share information, keep each other in the loop. Because we know that our vision for what the farm and food system could look like is very aligned, and so, if we can coordinate together, I think we can get a lot more done and have a larger voice in the process where a lot of times community members are kind of on the outside of that decision making process. And I think what's really interesting is like a truly community-based food and farm system will support both small farmers and, you know, nutrition access at the same time. I feel like if we can invest in those positive community-based food systems, it will lift us all up at the same time.
The Farm Bill’s expiration date, September 30th, is getting closer. At this point, it's unlikely that a new version of the bill will be passed by then, which means that Congress will need to pass an extension and keep working on the bill through the fall and maybe into 2024 or even beyond. This leaves a lot of farmers. Leaders and rural communities in an uncertain position, but it also means there's still time for us to connect with our legislators and demand a fair Farm Bill that actually addresses the challenges in our food system rather than making them worse. On the next Farm Bill Uprooted, we'll talk solutions.
If you enjoyed this podcast, please remember to subscribe and rate us on your preferred podcast platform, and share the show with your friends. You can also check out our previous podcast series Uprooted: Talking COP27 in the same feed. The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy works at the intersection of policy and practice to advance just sustainable food systems. You can support our work at IATP.org/donate.