Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Why We Need a Farm Bill


from the Boston Globe

By Gus Schumacher | May 26, 2008

THE FARM BILL that Congress has overwhelmingly supported over President Bush's veto has taken a beating from many pundits and editorial boards, especially in the Northeast. Yet there are good reasons even for New Englanders to favor this bill, especially over the status quo.

The bill certainly should be better. It should include more reform on the commodity titles during this era of high prices for wheat, corn, and soybeans, and use savings from commodity reforms to provide additional support for nutrition, conservation, and healthy food, especially for America's 40 million poor. Reduction of the McGovern-Dole International Food for Education Program for overseas schoolchildren at a time of spiking world food prices was especially hurtful.

But there is no question that the bill is better than the veto option proposed by the president. By using his veto pen, President Bush wanted to extend the existing, flawed, and out-of-date 2002 farm bill into the future.

The new bill should be called the Farm and Nutrition Bill. In fact, most of the money in the bill, some 74 percent, is allocated to help America's poor put food on their table and improve their nutrition and diets. To address the growing problem of diabetes and obesity in our children, the new bill also includes $1 billion for the free fresh fruits and vegetable snack program for schools.

Adding another $2 billion annually, Congress will now provide some $40 billion each year to help feed the poorest 11 percent of Americans. For Massachusetts, an estimated 432,000 will benefit just from the improved food stamp provisions of this new legislation. America's working poor will find their local food banks better stocked with an additional $1 billion through provisions in the Emergency Food Assistance Program for Food Banks.

The bill also provides needed resources to protect New England's working farms, to improve the region's water quality and wildlife habitat, advance domestic, renewable energy, promote healthier foods, and expand farmers' markets supporting our local food systems.

Under the current bill, more than 60 percent of the region's farmers with pending applications to improve conservation practices are turned down for lack of funds, and nearly 40 percent of our farmers asking for support to provide permanent farmland protection easements on their farms await support.

New England's farmers want to continue as good stewards of the land. This bill will do just that, helping them to further clean our water and air, preserve our diminishing farmland, and build wildlife habitat. This will help address the backlog of farmers who have wanted to participate in programs but have been turned away due to lack of funds.

In New England, more than 1,000 farmers have applied for conservation and farmland protection funding in recent years, only to be told "no funding." To ensure we protect our local farms from sprawling development, the new Farm Bill nearly doubles funding for the farm and ranchland protection program to reduce this backlog.

This new law makes an unprecedented commitment to support locally produced food and expand access to these healthy products for all. Expanded resources will support additional free fruit and vegetable vouchers for seniors at farmers' markets, such as at the new Allston/Brighton farmers' market and the three new farmers' markets located near health clinics in Dorchester. It will also provide new sources of loan capital to develop locally grown food businesses and support the many farmers in New England making the transition to organic systems. The new bill allows schools flexibility to purchase locally in their school meals programs, to create new markets for local farmers, and to bring just-picked fresh fruits and vegetables to local schools.

The benefits of the new Farm and Nutrition Bill are clear. New England needs it to support our vulnerable families at a difficult time.

Gus Schumacher is the former Massachusetts commissioner of food and agriculture.

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