In the Face of COVID-19, State Legislators Push for Federal Support of Local Food Systems | Civil Eats

In the Face of COVID-19, State Legislators Push for Federal Support of Local Food Systems

The State Innovation Exchange (SiX) has been building a coalition for sustainable agriculture policies. The pandemic presents a moment for national strategy.

people stand in the hallways of congress waiting to meet with politicians and lobby them on local food and farming issues. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

On April 23, a coalition of 128 state legislators from 34 states sent a letter to Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue. They expressed their strong concerns about how the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is planning to allocate the $9.5 billion that the CARES Act had designated for local food producers affected by COVID-19. They urged the agency to prioritize relief for small and mid-sized farms that grow fruits, nuts, and vegetables for regional markets and to pay special attention to historically underserved groups, such as Black and Indigenous farmers.

“Secretary Perdue, USDA, and our elected federal representatives recognize that a one-size-fits-all approach is not suitable to address the unique circumstances that this public health emergency presents,” said Iowa state representative Chuck Isenhart (D-Dubuque), who led the charge, in a press release. “We need to ensure that these local farmers have equal access to any federal assistance coming into our states to sustain agricultural enterprises.”

Federal lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have presented USDA with similar concerns and demands regarding how money meant to support small farms will be spent. On May 1, they also introduced new legislation that would further bolster aid to local food producers.

But the call from state representatives and senators represented the first national policy action initiated by the State Innovation Exchange’s (SiX) agriculture coalition—a new group of lawmakers intent on shifting the food and farm landscape.

SiX was created in 2014 as a “national resource and strategy center” for progressive state policymaking, with an eye toward issues including reproductive rights and affordable health care. It’s now connected to 3,500 state legislators in all 50 states, and last year it launched a new focus area: agriculture.

Kendra Kimbirauskas photo courtesy of SiX.

Kendra Kimbirauskas photo courtesy of SiX.

Kendra Kimbirauskas, an Oregon-based farmer and SiX’s director of agriculture, said that while the organization’s focus is on advancing state-level policies that strengthen small farms and local food economies, the lack of federal leadership in addressing COVID-19’s disruptions to the food system and a national increase in food insecurity presented an important opportunity for legislators to speak up.

“This crisis is demonstrating that we need new ways to ensure food security, and that our local policymakers are best positioned to do just that,” said Kimbirauskas. “States can and should be bold in leading the way to envision and build a localized food system that’s not only resilient but works for food producers, working Americans, and their communities.”

It’s an approach that some see as the progressive answer to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), an organization that has been incredibly influential in advancing conservative policies in state governments but has faced criticism for allowing corporate interests to directly shape policy on issues on everything from gun laws to ag-gag legislation.

For years, ALEC’s signature approach has involved drafting pre-packaged legislation that lawmakers can essentially cut and paste and add their names to. And while SiX aims to provide policy support, communications resources, and training, it does not write legislation or accept corporate donations; and it receives its funding from foundations and private donors.

Kimbirauskas is focused on tactics like helping the network’s legislators who work in urban districts gain more confidence working on rural issues like farm policy. She also helps connect legislators to farm groups that have few financial resources, and therefore less of a presence at state capitals compared to industrial agriculture interests.

SIX’s agriculture initiative is just getting started, and while COVID-19 has provided a moment for national unity, the coalition is invested in the long-term staying power of local policy. “We should be thinking about building good policy from local government all the way up to the federal level,” said Kimbirauskas. “People locally know what’s best for them, and a great way to engage in policy that affects peoples’ lives is through your state legislature.”

Civil Eats recently spoke with five legislators in the SiX network about how they’re working on local agriculture issues in their states.

Texas Representative Eddie Rodriguez (D-Austin)

Texas legislator Eddie Rodriguez.Representative Eddie Rodriguez calls himself a “foodie” and he first met with local farmers in his district, in Austin, Texas, at a restaurant that they were all supplying. “I just wanted to hear them out. I asked them what kind of help they needed,” he said. The farmers’ insights led to the launch of the first Farm to Table Caucus in 2012, which he created in partnership with a Republican colleague.

“I was coming at it from a small-business perspective, but also a healthier-options perspective,” he explained. “As in, how can you translate sustainable farming into healthier foods at the dinner table, but also in schools and other places?”

The caucus focuses on policies that affect the local production of healthy food, and Rodriguez has worked on issues like changing a rule that prohibited producers from offering samples at farmers’ markets, which hamper their ability to sell their products. Rodriguez said regulations like that one are fairly common, and while they’re meant to apply to large-scale agricultural production, they end up hurting small family farms that are using different systems.

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His most recent work is on legislation to spur the growth of urban farming. “One of my top priorities is property taxes, because lots of times urban farms are not appraised as agriculture,” he said, and paying city property taxes might be prohibitive for a business growing vegetables.

In the past month, Rodriguez hosted a Facebook Town Hall to talk about how to address COVID-related food insecurity in Texas and has been active in supporting the Central Texas Food Bank.

Rodriguez is planning on sharing the work he’s done to build the bipartisan food Caucus with representatives in other states through his relationship with SiX.

Vermont Representative Randall Szott (D-Windsor)

Vermont Representative Randall SzottIn February, the last active dairy farmer in the Vermont legislature sold his cows, marking what many saw as the end of an era in which agriculture and lawmaking were unquestionably interconnected. “It [was] this hugely symbolic kind of moment,” said Randall Szott, a state representative in his first term.

The dairy downturn is just one economic issue affecting the viability of the small farms that dot Vermont’s mostly rural landscape, and while Szott is not on the Committee on Agriculture and Forestry, he’s been supportive of legislation that addresses those issues, like a recent bill that resulted in a study of how the state might pay farmers for ecosystem services. “How do we create income streams for farmers so that they’re not just getting paid for their crops, but they’re getting paid for all these other benefits that they’re currently providing?” he asked.

While many Vermonters outside of agriculture take pride in their state’s abundant fields and farmers’ markets, he said, they are often disconnected from what it takes to preserve that landscape. “You have to remind folks, ‘Hey, if you want this rural place to stay as beautiful as it is, then we need to advance these policies,” he said. “Otherwise you know these towns, the working landscapes, are going to die.”

Szott also wants to help educate progressive Vermonters on connections between agriculture and other issues they care about, like immigration, climate change, and living wages. His connection to SiX, he thinks, can help him achieve that.

Ohio Representative Juanita Brent (D-Cleveland)

Ohio Representative Juanita BrentIn 2019, the biggest news for farmers out of the Ohio statehouse was that legislators passed a bill to legalize growing hemp. Representative Juanita Brent, the ranking member on the Agriculture and Rural Development Committee, fought to get that bill passed and is already thinking about ways to build on the progress it represents.

Right now, the Committee’s focus, however, is on two bills that aim to address COVID-19’s effects on the state’s food system. One is a dairy stimulus plan legislators say will help farmers who have been forced to dump milk, and the other is looking at improvements to food distribution, especially meat.

Because her district includes Cleveland, Brent is also particularly plugged into communities of urban farmers, whom she meets with once a month to hear about their challenges and opportunities. She’s been inspired by farmers growing produce on vacant lots in Cleveland and in hydroponic towers in Youngstown.

“When people say, ‘Hey, you’re a Black woman living in Cleveland, which is an urban area. Why are you so concerned about agriculture?’ I say ‘Because we all eat, and agriculture is relevant for everybody,’” she said. “We just have to start doing a better job of educating.”

Maine Representative Bill Pleucker (I- Warren)

Maine Representative Bill PleuckerRepresentative William Pleucker and his wife Reba Richardson were heading into the 16th growing season on their six-acre organic vegetable farm in Warren, Maine when the pandemic hit. They had scaled back their CSA from 250 to 150 members since Pleucker was elected in 2018, but when shares sold out quickly due to the coronavirus, they opened up additional spots. Making shares available to low-income community members had always been a priority, and to further address the economic devastation caused by COVID-19, they gave customers using SNAP benefits priority for the extra shares.

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Pleucker’s on-farm experiences with SNAP informed a bill he introduced to establish a state fund to match federal SNAP benefits, for those using their benefits to buy local food directly from farmers. “That’s a sweet spot in terms of where I’m working,” he said, “because those dollars, they’re coming right back to the farmers themselves…and at the same time, [we’re] addressing the food insecurity that we see in our rural areas.”

Pleucker, who is a member of the state’s Agriculture, Conservation, & Forestry Committee, has also introduced legislation to make sure meat labeled “Maine-Grown” comes from animals raised in the state. And he’s working on several bills to reduce the use of chemical pesticides in the state, by banning aerial herbicides on forestland, banning certain neonicotinoids in landscape gardening, and limiting the use of glyphosate on school grounds. In the midst of COVID-19, he’s been working on efforts related to state food sovereignty “all in order to expand food production in our communities that aren’t dependent on commercial food production and distribution, which are especially vulnerable in these times of COVID.”

As a farmer, Pleucker sees himself as a sort of mentor to more liberal urban legislators who might not have an understanding of how their decisions impact rural communities in their states. “We’re trying to figure out how we can support legislators who don’t necessarily come from rural spaces,” he said, so that more food and farm policy “is informed by the people who live in these spaces.”

Illinois Representative Sonya Harper (D-Chicago)

Illinois Representative Sonya Harper“I grew up in a food desert, and I’ve lost lots of family members to preventable, diet-related diseases,” said Representative Sonya Harper, who grew up on the South Side of Chicago, a city she now represents.

Harper is the chair of Illinois’ House Agriculture & Conservation Committee, and her background made her particularly interested in how urban farming could help solve issues of food access in cities, creating jobs and producing healthy food in low-income neighborhoods. “People really want to take food access into their own hands,” she said, and the right policies can help them succeed. Getting insights into approaches that really work to address issues such as food insecurity is one reason she wanted to work with SiX. “Maybe something I’m thinking about doing in my state has already worked [in another],” she said.

In her own state, Harper passed a law that created urban agriculture incentive zones, in which allows municipalities can offer farms incentives, like discounts on property taxes or water and electric rates. She also sponsored the Farmer Equity Act, which “requires the Department of Agriculture to reach out to farmers of color, to make sure they’re considering them for important decision-making boards and making sure that resources and programs are also getting to farmers of color,” she said. In February, she introduced the Right to Garden Act.

While Harper represents Chicago, she also participates in a Farm Bureau program in which she travels to other parts of the state to talk to rural farmers about how they grow and the challenges they face. “What we end up finding out is that we have a lot more in common than we thought we did,” she said.

Top photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.

Lisa Held is Civil Eats’ senior staff reporter and contributing editor. Since 2015, she has reported on agriculture and the food system with an eye toward sustainability, equality, and health, and her stories have appeared in publications including The Guardian, The Washington Post, and Mother Jones. In the past, she covered health and wellness and was an editor at Well+Good. She is based in Baltimore and has a master's degree from Columbia University's School of Journalism. Read more >

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