Surprise Winners in the Farm Bill

02 Mar, 2014

While the implications of the new Farm Bill for sustainable agriculture are under hot debate, one program is certainly a step in the right direction. In an unprecedented move for both sustainable agriculture and underprivileged food consumers, the new bill contains a program—called the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive Program—that will allow low-income families to double food stamp benefits at farmers’ markets. Despite the relatively tiny budget allocation ($100 million, as opposed to the billions allocated in the Farm Bill for industrial agriculture), this move is seen as a boon for not only small, sustainable farmers but impoverished consumers as well, who rarely have access to healthy food.

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The driving force behind this program is Wholesome Wave, a nonprofit organization that fosters relationships between local agriculture and underserved communities. Michel Nischan, celebrated chef, and president and CEO of Wholesome Wave, sat down with Organic Connections to explain this legislation’s significance to both farmers and underprivileged consumers.

A Needed Boost to Local Farmers

Wholesome Wave has been implementing incentive programs at the state level for the past seven years for SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly the Food Stamp program) benefits to be accepted and even supplemented at farmers’ markets. This activity helped set a strong precedent for the current proposed national program, when Wholesome Wave and other like-minded activist groups and organizations proposed it be included in the Farm Bill.

The successes of previous incentive programs paved the way for the acceptance of the new program in the Farm Bill, according to Nischan. “These successes are 100 percent based on incentives for SNAP dollars spent at farmers’ markets on locally grown fruits and vegetables. A lot of the surveillance that has been done has proven the positive impact on the small and mid-sized farm economy: adding infrastructural investment, putting land in production—all of those things are good indicators.

“While we were in conversation and stewarding the process through to see that this language got in the Farm Bill—along with other groups like Fair Food Network—the local ag component was something that has been very important to us. There is language in there listing it as a priority. A hundred million over a five-year period is going to require a 50 percent match, so you’re looking at two hundred million over five years. The implications for small-farm economy are pretty significant.”

Effect on Low-Income Families

Wholesome Wave’s work in this arena also demonstrates the true nutritional benefit that such a program provides to low-income families. “When something as simple as a fruit and vegetable two-for-one sale comes along, you see families not only rigorously participate and increase their purchase and consumption of fruits and vegetables,” said Nischan, “but after the program goes away, they continue to seek and consume more vegetables as a result of that, which is huge. We have a Diet and Shopping Behavior Study on our Wholesome Wave website that shows what happened in several communities; it’s peer-reviewed and we had academic partners. These incentive programs actually allowed these consumers to imagine a brighter future for their families. When the program ended, they were still so enthusiastic about it that they went out of their way to find fruits and vegetables and continue to consume them at higher levels.

“This research paints a different picture of the SNAP consumer than what many popular conservatives paint—that anybody accepting SNAP is lazy and is watching TV and pounding back chips, Twinkies and soda. We did consumer surveys very much in the style of grocery companies, and three years in a row the number one reason as to why SNAP consumers participated in the program was the quality of produce available to them; above everything, quality was number one.

“Tied for number two was market acceptance of SNAP benefits to begin with, and supporting local farmers and businesses. Number three was taking part in the community with their selection of local produce.

“Once that barrier of affordability was taken away, they really got to express that they value quality when they make a selection of fruits and vegetables, that they love supporting local farmers and businesses, and they love taking part in their community. These are the things that any affluent farmers’ market consumer values—yet these are people struggling with poverty.

“When we can marry that underserved-community consumer directly to small and mid-sized farmers who are often struggling to make ends meet themselves, it’s a huge win-win.”

Still Work to Be Done

The battle has not yet been won, however; the language in this Farm Bill program now needs to be more definitive so that the majority of the funds actually do end up at farmers’ markets. “It looks really good, but I think also with the looseness in the language you’re going to start seeing a variety of ‘incentive experts’ popping up out of the woodwork,” Nischan predicted. “I believe Senator Pat Roberts [R-Kansas] removed the word fresh from in front of fruits and vegetables, which has some obvious implications. It wouldn’t surprise me if the frozen-food industry doesn’t have an eye toward how these incentives might apply to their products as well. Therefore, the way we’ll get the best outcome as we move through the next five years is to make sure our local farmers get as much of that benefit as possible. That’s our job and the job of other nonprofit organizations that are working on behalf of underserved-community members and small and mid-sized farmers.

“When you look at the overall Farm Bill, this is a miniscule amount of money. But there’s no question that to the small and mid-sized farm movement $100 million is a lot of money: it can create a lot of jobs; it can put more land in production. It’s much easier to get a four-vendor farmers’ market to go into a food desert than to stick the $5 million grocery-store shovel in the ground. Food deserts in the US total in the tens of thousands; no grocery company is going to be opening that many stores in food deserts. So the role of farmers and farmers’ markets, mobile markets—the ability, the flexibility, of being able to go into places fast at low cost—could be a very effective way to see the majority of this money make it to the communities that it’s intended to serve.”

Looking Forward

“Obviously there’s going to be another Farm Bill process coming up in about five years,” Nischan concluded. “By the time that happens we would really love to demonstrate the impact of this hundred million dollars on local economies, and on the diets and the health outcomes of families that are impacted by incentive approaches in their communities. It really is not only an investment in small and mid-sized farms but also a powerful potential investment in reducing healthcare costs.

“We will continue to work to see this as a much stronger program moving forward in the next Farm Bill. We’re not looking at this as, ‘Oh, cool—a hundred million dollars in the Farm Bill, preference for local producers; pat ourselves on the back, job done.’ We intend to see this grow in success, and impact how Americans look at fellow Americans struggling with poverty.”

For more information, please visit Wholesome Wave’s website at www.wholesomewave.org.

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