Fruits and vegetables a “specialty crop”: U.S. Congress

Mark Bittman, the brilliant food fundamentalist at the New York Times, has been writing the most amazing occasional editorials the last couple of years. Here's the latest, on the negotiations to reduce farm subsidies, and the group of four heavy-weight representatives from the Midwest on the so-called supercommittee who will negotiate the final numbers on what some are calling the "secret farm bill.":

The group of four is aiming at $23 billion in cuts, with around $14 billion coming from commodity subsidies, $6 billion from conservation programs, and the rest from nutrition programs like food stamps, now more important than ever. Everyone (almost literally) wants the restructuring of subsidies, but it sounds as ifdirect payments would be replaced by a new “shallow-loss” protection plan, essentially free insurance that would cover revenue losses before the also heavily subsidized paid insurance kicks in. Replacing direct payments with shallow-loss protection may save some money, but does nothing to change the fact that the wrong people will get it.

And the devil is in the details. Will small and medium farms raising what are outrageously called “specialty crops” (fruits and vegetables!) be covered by shallow-loss? Will programs supporting new farms, local farms, organic food, access to real food by real people, be boosted? Probably not.

Few are privy to discussions of either the group of four or the supercommittee. Those in Congress who appear most concerned about the process are led by Representative Ron Kind, Democrat of  Wisconsin, who, with 26 other members of Congress, sent a letter to the supercommittee urging it to reject the creation of new farm programs outside the normal legislative order. Meanwhile, Congress was flooded by 27,000 phone calls — encouraged by the excellentFood Democracy Now — protesting the secret farm bill.

Scores of legislators, farm and advocacy groups, individuals and other organizations have crafted proposals to be considered for the next farm bill (here are just a few), and at least some are slipping notes under the door of the group of four, hoping to influence their recommendations. Among the best of these is the Local Farms, Food and Jobs Act, a title that would strengthen local and regional agriculture and increase access to healthy food, introduced by Congresswoman Chellie Pingree, Democrat of  Maine, and Senator Sherrod Brown, Democrat of Ohio.

I spoke with Pingree by phone on Monday. The title, she said, “looks at existing programs and tries to find ways to make them work for the small to medium-sized family farm, which is the side of agriculture that’s actually growing.” It would make it easier for small and new farmers to borrow money, get small grants and secure crop insurance. It would make it easier to use food stamps at farmers’ markets and buy local food for school lunches. In short, it would be a huge step in the right direction, and asking your Congress representative  to co-sponsor this title is worth five minutes of your time.

Pingree “was looking forward to a public hearing on those things that should be eliminated or encouraged, and re-evaluating how we treat food and agriculture in this country.” But with the farm bill headed for a quick (and secret) trip thought the supercommittee, large-scale reforms like hers may not get the consideration they deserve. Although Pingree is optimistic that she’ll get at least some of her proposals included in the supercommittee report, without an out-in-the-open process real change will be shut out of the debate, as will entire states like California, whose gigantic agricultural industry produces the bulk of our “specialty crops.” (Fruits and vegetables, remember?)

Long, I know, but necessary. Pic below comes from a innovative cost-saving-small-farm-promoting program mentioned in passing in Bittman's full column. This is a program in which low-income women, infants and children are eligible to receive fruits and vegetables with WIC vouchers. 


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