06/12/2012 05:19 pm ET Updated Aug 12, 2012

A 2012 Farm Bill That Support Small Farmers and Nutritional Assistance Programs: Good for Our Nation's Health and Economy

In Friday's Los Angeles Times, there was an opinion editorial titled "America Needs a Farm Bill That Works" -- this title is precisely why I think members of Congress need to be committed to pushing forward a bipartisan piece of legislation.

A 2012 Farm Bill will help provide infrastructure, investment and economic certainty for American agriculture -- things that are both important and critical for an industry that impacts all Americans, whether they live in big cities or small rural communities. But in order for the bill to be effective in providing these things, it must support small farmers and nutritional programs that are key components to the viability and health of an Agriculture economy.

Small farmers are often made the loving poster child of our rural landscape. They are a struggling, declining and aging population. According to the Economic Research Services in United States Department of Agriculture, during the last census there were over 2.1 million farms in the U.S., of which 75% earned less than $50,000 annually and had about 5% production while the very large farms, representing just 2% of all farms, made over $1 million dollars and had 47% production.

This is a problem when you consider small farmers generally produce more fruits, vegetables, nuts and sustainable food products, all of which are essential for proper nutritional sustenance. As our country continues to focus on the importance of a balanced and nutritious diet, Congress should focus on ensuring competitive opportunities for small farmers that will enable them to continue to grow the healthy food that we need. Hopefully, obesity and other health issues can be addressed through healthy food choices. Local farmers are key to producing healthy foods and it will also increase their income.

Similar to the focus that is put on educating students in science and math to fill voids in those growing fields, Congress should support programs to recruit future farmers and ensure a growing and diverse industry in the future. The average U.S. farmer is 57 years old and just 5% of all farmers are 35 years or younger. Not to mention, just 4.6% of all U.S. farms are minority-owned and run. To say that there is room for improvement would be a gross understatement -- we need to find creative ways attract new entrepreneurial and innovative farmers from all demographics. Congress and the present Administration recently addressed the lingering discrimination cases initiated by black farmers. However, constant vigilance is required to overcome the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) history of discrimination and to ensure equity for all farmers.

Additionally, upon examination of the payments to large farmers as compared to small farmers, the difference is vast. The commodity payments are tied to the production of specific commodities. These payments go primarily to large commercial producers. As a result, few of the smallest farms receive commodity payments.

In the 2008 farm bill, Congress did institute a number of new initiatives and expand other initiatives that encouraged local farmers to grow and sell food to various local vendors, including local school systems. For instance, in North Carolina, citizens are encouraged to buy locally and various grocery store chains, military bases and local schools are encouraged to purchase from local farmers. As a result, the local farm economy is benefiting and healthy foods are more accessible. We need to identify and expand smart and effective programs like this.

We also need to look for areas where we can improve. For example, the nutritional assistance programs under the farm bill are large and expensive and given the economic recovery, needed now more than ever. In September 2011, the USDA's Economic Research Service reported that about one in every four Americans participates in at least one of the 15 domestic food and nutrition assistance programs of the USDA. These programs provide a nutritional safety net for millions of children and low-income adults. These programs also represent a significant federal investment, accounting for over two-thirds of USDA's budget. A Moody's study on the president's stimulus impact noted that for every Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) dollar spent, it generated a $1.73 ripple effect in the economy.

The House Budget Committee, in an effort to reduce the federal budget deficit, proposed to cut SNAP significantly, possibly to its pre-2008 status -- this is pennywise and pound foolish. This is not to suggest that there could not or should not be some reduction given to efficiency monitoring and other infrastructure upgrades. In addition to required financial resources, there needs to be greater use of Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards at farmers' and fish markets where healthy foods are sold. Nutrition education is essential and should be integrated into each of the 15 food assistance programs.

Food security is generally recognized as an important goal for our country. Supporting good nutrition for our needy citizens is the right and moral action for our government to take, but it is also the economically and healthy action to take where small farmers will make a significant impact.