Recent Articles About Food Policy

Earlier this month, a group of registered dietitians (RDs) sent some unusual tweets. “How can a soda tax help Americans get healthier?” asked one, linking to an article on a website created by the American Beverage Association (ABA), a group that lobbies on behalf of beverage producers.

“I agree: food & beverage taxes are regressive. Here’s why,” said another, with a direct link to the ABA website.

Then, public health advocacy group Ninjas for Health connected the dots and reached a worrisome conclusion: the soda industry was paying dietitians to tweet against proposed soda taxes. Read more

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Urban farming received a legitimizing nod last month when Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-Michigan) introduced the Urban Agriculture Act of 2016 in hopes of getting it included in the next Farm Bill.

In a call with reporters, Stabenow described the act as an important document, “To start the conversation and create the broad support I think we will have in including urban farming as part of the next Farm Bill.”

The bill aims to create economic opportunities for urban farmers, expand U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) farm loan programs to urban farmers, support the creation of urban farm co-ops to help bring products to market (and allow those co-ops to manage loans for urban farmers), invest in urban ag research, and improve access to fresh, local foods.

The bill is long overdue, according to Malik Yakini, executive director of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, the nonprofit that operates D-Town Farm, the Detroit farm where Stabenow announced the legislation.

“Overall, I think the bill is progressive and it’s a significant step forward that Senator Stabenow is recognizing the importance of urban agriculture,” Yakini says.

Whether the legislation will make it into the final 2018 Farm Bill is yet to be seen. But if it does, it would be the first time urban farmers have been included in the federal legislation. And it could provide important protections for urban farm businesses in the case of bad weather, disasters, and market shifts.

Wes King, policy specialist for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC), points to the provision that would provide the USDA the ability to allow urban farmers to use contract and local pricing to recover losses as part of the non-insured disaster assistance program.

“Currently, the coverage uses national commodity prices to reimburse farmers,” King explains. “This works for farmers who get commodity prices for their crops, but in urban agriculture, farmers sell direct-to-consumer or high-end restaurants and are getting premium prices, not commodity prices.”

As part of the bill, Stabenow has also advocated for the creation of an office of urban agriculture under the USDA. The office would coordinate urban agriculture policies and offer technical assistance.

“The legislation is all anchored in the creation of this office, which will act as a force to coordinate urban farming activities and research and ensure that whatever is included in the Farm Bill will be properly implemented,” says King.

But Yakini worries that the advisory committee overseeing the new office might not be representative of all urban farmers. “There has been a historic marginalization of Black farmers,” he explains. “I hope that the committee that appoints the advisory board recognizes that, but we won’t know until we get there.”

The bill authorizes up to a total of $860 million over 10 years in new investments for urban agriculture, a potentially sizable chunk of the overall farm bill pie.

Tyson Gersh, president of Detroit-based Michigan Urban Farming Initiative says, “It’s been difficult for urban farmers to take advantage of funding opportunities to support their work because [funding] is designed around traditional agriculture.”

To get by, many urban farmers have either taken advantage of “borrowed” land and built infrastructure from free and found materials or engaged in public-private partnerships. The struggle for farms that fall somewhere in the middle could be eased through more federal funding. “A new resource platform could enable the spectrum to be more fully populated,” says Gersh.

Indeed, the bill recognizes the diversity of urban farming operations and includes a specific provision to improve access to USDA farm programs like technical assistance, loans and insurance, and uses conservation grants to support access to land and production sites for farmers operating rooftop or vertical farms.

The nod to urban food production ought to be welcome news for operations like Bright Farms, Detroit’s Hantz Farm, and Square Roots, a Kimbal Musk-backed urban farming accelerator to help millennials launch vertical farming operations.

During the press call, Stabenow acknowledged that the funding for these initiatives would come from expanding existing loan programs, which could cause urban farmers to compete with other farmers for the same pot of funding.

“We don’t want to take funding away from traditional rural farmers,” Yakini says. “This is not urban ag versus rural ag.”

Stabenow explained the need to expand funding opportunities, noting, “If we can make [loans and risk management tools] available then other bankers will be more willing to participate with our urban farmers.”

But Gersh fears that the wrong type of funding could have a deleterious effect.

“I’d rather see resources allocated toward self sufficiency,” he says. “I’d hate to see our entire industry disappear overnight when the bills that provided the funding to create all of this growth are overturned and the funding disappears.”

Karen Washington also has concerns about the dollars and cents of the proposed legislation. The urban farming activist and farmer/founder of Rise & Root Farm in New York is concerned that the bill emphasizes profit-driven farming rather than urban food access.

“Urban agriculture should be in the Farm Bill … and the fact that [this bill] is even part of the conversation is huge,” she says. “But the heart of this bill cannot be profit-driven. A lot of the emphasis is on the commercialization of urban agriculture. This is not just about profit. Race economics have to be brought into the conversation.”

Yakini also expresses concern about the potential negative impacts of the bill on people of color. He’s particularly concerned by the prospect of funding for this bill coming out of the nutrition portion—which accounts for the large majority—of the farm bill “We do not want to see this bill funded by reducing SNAP benefits,” he says

There are, indeed, kinks to be worked out.

On the press call, Stabenow acknowledged the bill has little chance of passing in its current form. But, it could make waves regardless.

For starters, it could sway city and state-level lawmakers who are on the fence about updating dated legal language that puts urban farmers at odds with municipalities.

“[The bill] provides good opportunities for the federal government to step in and tell cities, ‘We’ve done the research and you’re obliged to give it a chance,’” Gersh says.

For Karen Washington, the message the proposed bill sends is a step in the right direction.

“Until now, no one has taken growing food in cities seriously,” she says. “We’ve had to fight to make our way, making something out of nothing while people treated [urban farming] like it was a hobby. This bill validates that urban farming is not going away and needs to be an important part of the conversation.”



Free seed libraries, swaps, and exchanges increase access to local food and can play a large role in both expanding and preserving biodiversity. Yet for almost 80 years, these non-commercial operations have been running afoul of the law.

That’s because the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Federal Seed Act mandates that any activity involving non-commercial distribution of seed be labeled, permitted, and tested according to industrial regulations that would be both costly and burdensome to the over 460 estimated seed libraries operating in 46 states.

Now the tide may be starting to turn. Read more

Here’s a scenario currently playing out across the country: A low-income family receives vouchers through the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) to help buy nutritious staple foods such as milk, fresh produce, and peanut butter. Under WIC, the family is eligible to receive these benefits until the child in the household turns five (when he presumably enters kindergarten). But, because of where his birthday falls in relation to the start of the school year, the child becomes ineligible to receive the benefits; the resulting gap in nutritional support can last up to a year. There’s also an increase in the likelihood that his family will have to seek emergency food relief, choose cheaper, less-nutritious (read: processed) foods, and in some cases, even skip meals.

According to a new study conducted by researchers at the University of Missouri (MU), this very real scenario affects an estimated 153,000 American children every year. The study, titled “the impact of aging out of WIC on food insecurity in households with children,” was published in a recent issue of Children and Youth Services Review. Its authors analyzed a nationally representative data set that encompassed 1,350 children between the ages of four-and-a-half and six.

“Lots of people have looked at food insecurity among WIC participants, but not at this drop-off point,” says Colleen Heflin, a professor in MU’s Truman School of Public Affairs and one of the study’s authors. She and her colleagues found that 30-day food insecurity (that is, a one-month reference period for measuring a household’s difficulty in obtaining enough food due to a lack of resources) increases by an estimated 5 to 11 percent for children who age-out of WIC at the age of 61 months, but are not yet able to start kindergarten.

“Many school districts are moving the age cut-off [for Kindergarten]” earlier and earlier” says Heflin. For example, some schools now require a child entering kindergarten to turn five by September 15 rather than December 31. “An unintended consequence of this educational policy is that it’s causing a larger gap” for some children in need, Heflin says.

Though the study does not address the immediate results of this aging out, Heflin notes that other research shows food insecure mothers will forego eating in order to provide for their kids. And that they will often turn to more drastic food procurement methods such as “shopping” at food banks (which tend to stock boxed and canned non-perishables), as well as applying for Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits—which are not nutritionally-targeted—and visiting soup kitchens.

WIC provides vouchers for 8.3 million at-risk pregnant women, mothers, and their children. And unlike food pantries and groceries bought with SNAP, the high-quality foods that WIC provides have been credited with lowering childhood obesity and diabetes, and helping to increase school readiness.

This is all hardly news to Georgia Machell, research and evaluation manager at the National WIC Association (NWA), WIC’s nonprofit education and advocacy arm. With the federal bill that encompasses the WIC program currently up for reauthorization before the House and Senate, the NWA was responsible for compiling a list of “asks,” with the input of national WIC directors and their staffs. Their recommendations included giving states the ability to expand WIC coverage to age six, or until the start of kindergarten.

“The need to fix [this gap] bubbled up from the community,” says Machell. But, hard data makes a stronger argument. “It’s useful to have research conclusions and statistical data that support the messages we’re trying to put out,” she says.

This past January, the Senate Agriculture Committee, led by Senator Pat Roberts (Republican-Kansas), passed the Improving Child Nutrition Integrity and Access Act, which would allocate $20 billion to a variety of child nutrition programs—including WIC, with its proposal to expand to age six. (The bill still has to pass the full Senate, however, where it’s meeting resistance due to concerns about a school lunch provision).

And although “WIC to 6” was introduced in the House last June by Congresswomen Linda Sánchez (Democrat-California) and Rosa DeLauro (Democrat-Connecticut), and received strong support among Democrats, it was left off the House’s version of the bill. As of this writing, the bill remains stalled out in the House.

“There’s a contentious environment in the House, with [some] determined to stand squarely on the side of shrinking the federal government at whatever cost,” says NWA president Douglas Greenaway. While he knows that any reauthorization will come with tradeoffs, WIC to 6 is not one he’d be happy to make. Still, he remains optimistic about its potential future.

“There’s such keen interest in keeping children on the program that we hope there will be enthusiasm to make [WIC to 6] happen,” he says. Meanwhile, he continues to advocate for expanding the age of juvenile WIC recipients. “Anything that gives kids a healthy start is an enhancement to the economy in the long run,” he says.

A farmer, a restaurant owner, a labor supporter and a public-health community advocate walk into a room over a bar… and they’re greeted like rock stars by a sold-out crowd. This was the scene at the Swedish American Hall on Monday night, August 15, when San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club presented Women Leaders at the Table: Addressing Inequity in the Good Food Movement. Read more

Eli Zigas didn’t wait for someone to offer him his dream job. He created it.

It all started in 2009, when Zigas moved to San Francisco to be an urban farmer. A graduate of Grinnell College in Iowa, Zigas had worked on federal policy issues—clean energy and voting rights—but he yearned for a job rooted in the outdoors.

But here was one problem. “I quickly realized that I didn’t know how to farm,” he says with laugh. Read more

Last week, Donald Trump entered the food and farm discussion in a significant way for the first time by appointing a team to advise him on agriculture policy. Over the weekend, speaking to a crowd at Iowa Senator Jodi Ernst’s “Roast and Ride” fundraiser, Trump warned of Hillary Clinton’s “war on the American farmer,” and promised to lower taxes on “family farms” and double down on a federal mandate that turns a percentage of the corn grown here into ethanol fuel. Read more