THE BLOG
12/11/2013 09:47 am ET Updated Feb 10, 2014

The Farm Bill: Building Long-term Community and Economic Health

Shutterstock / Hannamariah

Throughout the holiday season, as many of us experience the joy of sharing meals with our family and friends, we are reminded of the important role that food serves in our home and in our community. We must also be mindful of those who are less fortunate. I worry about this in my own community of Rhode Island, which has the highest food insecurity rate in New England.

In Providence, more than one third of our residents rely on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to feed their families. However, SNAP benefits were reduced on November 1, directly affecting all Rhode Islanders enrolled in the program. SNAP is a critical benefit for those who need it. Families in Rhode Island, and across the country, are bracing for even further SNAP benefits cuts from Congress in current Farm Bill negotiations.

The importance of SNAP goes far beyond being a safeguard against hunger. Providing access to healthy food builds healthier communities. In addition to SNAP, the Farm Bill includes nutrition programming that provides children and families with information about, and access to, healthier foods.

In Providence, SNAP provides a crucial benefit to families, and particularly our youngest residents. Nearly 90 percent of our public school children are eligible for free or reduced lunch, and many don't consume the amount of fruits and vegetables recommended by the USDA. The food provided to them in school may be the healthiest, or the only, meal these children receive in a given day.

To help encourage healthy nutritional habits, we are equipping Providence's elementary schools with garden carts that offer fresh produce, as well as an opportunity for children to make healthy decisions for themselves. Critical to the success of these garden carts is the SNAP Education and Obesity Prevention Program (SNAP-Ed), which provides much needed complementary programming in the cafeteria and classroom for students, and training for our teachers. These programs have multiplying effects as children go home and share what they've learned with family and friends.

Providence schools also participate in the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program (FFVP), which introduces children to a variety of produce they might otherwise not try. Current Farm Bill negotiations are looking to change the program language to permit non-fresh food, including canned and frozen produce. These changes are not in the best interest of our children who often lack access to fresh fruits and vegetables in their neighborhoods.

The Farm Bill also supports local economic development in Providence. SNAP redemption serves as a huge source of income for many of our local retailers and farmers markets, where the nonprofit Farm Fresh Rhode Island provides SNAP recipients $7 to spend for every $5 in SNAP benefits. Nutrition programs strengthen our local food economies by working with local farmers, processors, and distributors to supply healthy foods to our markets and schools in Providence and throughout Rhode Island.

Children that are hungry or malnourished have difficulty concentrating and learning during the school day. In Providence, with support from federal programs, we are working to ensure that our children are nourished and prepared to learn, achieve and be successful.

I encourage my fellow local leaders to recognize the important role that SNAP benefits and nutrition programming play in cities across the United States. These are not "feel good" programs that can be used as bargaining chips on the Congressional floor; these programs are a vital part of building healthier communities and a healthier future for our children. I urge my fellow leaders and citizens to reach out to Congress and ask that they use the Farm Bill to support health equity for all of our citizens.