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Why We Need the Farm Bill

Posted: 06/17/2013 3:43 pm

Few were surprised last week to hear that confidence in Congress has hit a historic low of 10 percent. Voters are worried about an ongoing inability to address the country's basic needs.

This week, the House of Representatives has a chance to take a meaningful step in reversing that perception.

There is no need more basic than food, and there is no legislation with a bigger impact on our nation's nutrition than the Farm Bill.

There are provisions in the House version of the Farm Bill that raise serious concerns, especially the fact the House bill cuts food assistance spending by taking two million people off the program (as opposed to the Senate bill, which found savings without removing families from the program).

That said, we believe the House Farm Bill deserves a full floor debate and passage, sending it to conference committee for reconciliation with the Senate bill that passed last week.

We are confident this will produce final legislation that is a strong improvement over current policies. The final version of the Farm Bill will likely be the most transformational ever when it comes to promoting healthy food systems (especially for low-income families), organic foods, farmers markets and local food systems. It would be a terrible mistake to stop the Farm Bill from moving forward.

The other option -- extending, yet again, the 2008 Farm Bill -- is not only a matter of evading legislative responsibility. It's a massive lost opportunity. An extension would continue the egregious farm subsidies that voters and lawmakers alike agree must go.

Over the past several years, there has been a strong bipartisan commitment to action on the Farm Bill by Agriculture Committee chairman Frank Lucas and ranking member Colin Peterson in the House and chairwoman Debbie Stabenow along with ranking Senator Thad Cochran in the Senate that Americans can and should be proud of.

Passing the House bill allows that process to continue in conference committee.

The Farm Bill is a huge and complex piece of legislation. It affects the entire food system for a population of 300 million: from production, processing, transportation and retail sales to the consumption we need for our very survival.

It affects how we steward our nation's valuable natural resources, as well as the research that strengthens our nation's security through successful food production in decades to come. It's about meaningful jobs in both urban and rural America.

Yet its very size also brings about numerous opportunities for important change. The House Farm Bill, for example, invests in beginning farmers and ranchers, encouraging entrepreneurship and new jobs and injecting energy into our nation's family farms with a new generation of young farmers.

Americans in every state, of every political stripe, of every faith, believe in a safety net. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program -- SNAP, or what we used to call food stamps -- is a crucial piece of that safety net. In recent years, the USDA has done a remarkable job of tightening the SNAP system, improving access to eligible families, and particularly bringing fraud rates to an all-time low.

And yet we can still improve. The new Farm Bill aims to support numerous innovative programs similar to "double up bucks," based on successful projects Fair Food Network and Wholesome Wave have launched around the country to increase the value of SNAP benefits when used for the purchase of nutritious fruits and vegetables at farmers' markets, and Healthy Food Finance, which will bring resources to develop more healthy food retail in underserved neighborhoods.

Through local food hubs, support for farmers' markets and other initiatives, the Farm Bill takes major strides to help family farmers sell more goods locally. Other initiatives support farmers committed to growing organic foods. These projects improve access to healthy foods for families and boost local and regional farm economies.

By passing a House bill and reconciling it in conference, our leaders can forge a balanced victory -- one that improves nutrition programs, local food systems, and conservation efforts, supports regional agriculture, and finally brings an end to the wasteful farm subsidies that members of Congress have deplored for years.

Perhaps we can take inspiration from Representative, John Dingell, Congress' longest-serving member. "Congress means 'a coming together,'" he said last week, "where people come together to work for great causes in which they all have an important interest."

There is arguably no greater cause, no more important interest, than the food we all eat. This is the House of Representatives' chance to do good: for our food system and for our people. Pass the Farm Bill and send it to conference committee.

Dr. Oran Hesterman is the president and CEO of the Ann Arbor, Michigan-based nonprofit Fair Food Network and the author of Fair Food: Growing a Healthy, Sustainable Food System for All. He is a former farmer and longtime researcher and advocate on agriculture policy.

Michel Nischan is the president and CEO of the national nonprofit Wholesome Wave. As the son of displaced farmers, Michel grew up with a great appreciation and respect for local agriculture and those who work the land. He translated these childhood values into a career as a James Beard Award-winning chef, author and restaurateur, becoming a lead advocate in the sustainable food movement.

 
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