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What the 2014 Farm Bill may mean for Detroiters

By Kami Pothukuchi, Ph.D.
Special to the Michigan Citizen

After three years of bitter wrangling between the U. S. House and Senate, President Barack Obama finally signed the $956 billion Farm Bill into law on Feb. 7. He did so at Michigan State University, thereby honoring our own Senator Debbie Stabenow’s role in shepherding the bill’s passage as the chair of the Senate’s Agriculture Committee.

Source: National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, sustainableagriculture.net

Source: National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, sustainableagriculture.net

The Farm Bill funds many activities in urban and rural areas in a complicated array of policies and programs, with spending spread over 10 years. Among the biggest changes in the new law are its cuts to the food stamp program and its replacement of direct crop payments to farmers with an insurance program.

At 79 percent of total expenditures, nutrition programs are the biggest category of the Farm Bill. Of these, the largest is food stamps or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which helps 47 million Americans put food on the table. In Michigan, SNAP benefits are transferred electronically through the Bridge Card.

Over the next decade, this program will see cuts of $860 million a year, or about one percent of the total. Thus, about 850,000 families in 17 states, including Michigan, will experience benefit cuts of an average of $90 a month. However, considering that House Republican leaders wanted to cut SNAP by $4 billion a year, the smaller final cut represents a win for impoverished households.

The bill also continued subsidies for big agribusiness, despite broad commitments in both chambers to cut those subsidies. It eliminates direct payments totaling $4.5 billion a year, which were paid to farm owners whether they actually farm or not. But the Farm Bill also increases crop insurance subsidies by nearly $6 billion to compensate farmers for losses due to weather or other conditions.

Detroiters may be impacted by the new Farm Law in specific ways. One, the law includes $100 million over 10 years for Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive (FINI) grants that support organizations with bonus incentives for SNAP purchases of fruits and vegetables.

The FINI program promises to benefit local growers in addition to SNAP recipients. It is modeled after nutrition incentive programs such as the Double Up Food Bucks (DUFB) offered in Michigan’s farmers markets. Sponsored by the Fair Food Network, DUFB match SNAP spending dollar for dollar at farmers markets, with the additional dollars to be spent exclusively on Michigan-grown fruits and vegetables. Thus, it increases the budgets of low-income households for fresh produce while also enhancing the revenues of local growers.

However, despite being inspired by homegrown programs such as DUFB, the FINI program currently does not require that program dollars be spent on locally grown produce or even at farmers’ markets. Because any SNAP retailer can apply for and receive FINI funding, some of these incentive dollars may end up at gas stations, convenience stores, and big box supermarkets such as Wal-Mart.

Source: National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, sustainableagriculture.net

Source: National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, sustainableagriculture.net

Because these stores are less likely to offer local produce, a smaller portion of these dollars will go to the area’s produce farmers. Thus, it is important to track the exact rules of the program as they are written by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Two, the law makes a few adjustments to SNAP. For example, it requires stores that accept SNAP benefits to stock more perishable foods, thereby increasing access to healthy, fresh foods in Detroit’s neighborhoods. It also clarifies SNAP eligibility rules, excluding lottery winners, affluent students, and offenders who fail to comply with their sentencing requirements.

Three, the law increases funding to the Emergency Food Assistance Program to support food assistance organizations by $205 million over 10 years. This program will help provide food to households that are in need, through soup kitchens, food pantries, and other programs that depend on local food banks such as Gleaners Community Food Bank and Forgotten Harvest.

Four, at $30 million in annual funding, the law triples money for direct farmer-to-consumer channels such as farmers’ markets, farm-to-institution, food hubs, and other local and regional food enterprises that process, distribute, aggregate, or store locally or regionally produced foods.

This increased funding and expansion of categories in the Farmers’ Market and Local Food Promotion Program is expected to provide a big boost to Detroit organizations that are engaged in building the local and regional food value chain.

Five, the law nearly doubles funding to $9 million per year for the popular Community Food Projects grant program. The program supports the development of community-based food projects in low-income communities to improve the self-sufficiency of community members. Since 1996, three Detroit collaborations were supported by this program, including the Detroit Agriculture Network and the Garden Resource Program.

Finally, the new law maintains or increases support for programs such as the Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program, Specialty Crop Block Grant Program, and the Healthy Food Financing Initiative to enhance local and regional food systems and also increase access to healthy food to local residents.

The new Farm Law has many other provisions than noted here. However, the changes in Farm Law underscore the growing importance to Detroiters of issues such as healthy and fresh food access within neighborhoods, and the increased availability of local and organic food.

Kami Pothukuchi, PhD, is associate professor of urban planning at Wayne State University. She also directs SEED Wayne, a program dedicated to building sustainable food system leadership on campus and in the community. She serves on the Detroit Food Policy Council.

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