Healthy Food for All

Author: Kate Fitzgerald

The Agriculture Act of 2014 provides more resources to urban and rural farmers and the development of healthy regional food systems than any Farm Bill in history.

No piece of legislation can make everyone happy and the 2014 Farm Bill is no exception. Right after it passed, critics on the right and the left were firing fast, but now that the dust has cleared, let’s take a look at some of the more interesting and less well-known provisions in the bill that can be useful for building resilient and responsive food economies.

We’ll start with the Nutrition Title.

Smart Policies to Reduce Hunger, Increase Access, and Create Connections to Local Farmers

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps) accounts for most of the spending in the Farm Bill (almost 80% over the next ten years) and is the country’s first line of defense against hunger.

Much has been written about the policy change made to SNAP in the bill, and we’re glad to say that several governors have managed to tweak their state spending to restore most of the first year’s expected cuts. (Check out Center on Budget and Policy Priorities or FRAC for excellent information). The Nutrition Title also includes commodity donation programs important to food banks and pantries, and you can find more information about those programs at FRAC.

We are going to concentrate on programs that will make it easier for low-income consumers to have access to healthy, culturally appropriate, fresh food in their communities.

The idea is that we can fight hunger, support physical health, and create economic opportunity by linking federal nutrition programs more directly with local farmers. That way each federal dollar does at least double duty, serving as both a nutrition support and a farm stimulus, all while keeping food dollars circulating in local economies.

From Fair Food Network’s perspective the most exciting new initiative is the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive program (FINI) is a competitive grant based on efforts such as Fair Food Network’s Double Up Food Bucks. FINI will fund fruit and vegetable incentive programs for participants who receive SNAP benefits. Many kinds of groups are eligible for the federal funds, including nonprofits, farmer associations, public agencies, Tribal organizations, and grocery stores. There is a priority for direct marketing projects and locally-sourced produce in conventional retail stores, projects located in low-income communities, and those that maximize the amount of funds spent on incentives. Applicants must provide a 1:1 match for each federal dollar. There are a total of $100 million available for FINI grants over the next five years. The first round of funding availability should be announced later in 2014.

SNAP use for CSA shares (Community Supported Agriculture), permitting online purchasing and a demonstration project using mobile technology for processing SNAP transactions could help increase convenience for SNAP participants and reduce the cost of accepting SNAP at farmers’ markets, farm stands and mobile markets. USDA will write new rules on these in the coming months.

Stores must meet stricter food standards to maintain SNAP authorization. The goal is to push retailers to improve their stock and genuinely serve as food stores for SNAP participants and to winnow out stores that not only do not serve the nutrition needs of consumers but also account for the lion’s share of program fraud. Stores must stock at least seven items in each of the categories and must have perishable products in at least three of the categories (produce, dairy, grains, and meat).

Better Food in Indian Country. The Farm Bill requires USDA conduct a study on the feasibility of Tribal organizations conducting food programs including WIC (Special Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program for Women, Infants, and Children) and allows for at least one Tribal organization to purchase traditional foods by local Indian producers. There is also a provision allowing donating and serving traditional foods in a variety of programs that service Tribal organizations.

Community Food Projects (CFP) is the oldest federal program supporting the development of programs to increase local self-reliance and nutritional well-being. Since 1996, CFP has provided grants to thousands of urban and rural organizations  helping build local capacity. In recognition of its excellent track record, CFP funding increases from $5 to $9 million per year in 2015. Anti-hunger organizations are also now eligible to apply for grants.

The Healthy Food Financing Initiative (HFFI) is an effort to increase food retail in underserved rural and urban communities through grants and low-interest loans. The Treasury Department and Health and Human Services Department have been making HFFI grants for the past several years. The Farm Bill gives USDA authority to participate in the program and authorizes $125 million in spending over the next five years.

The Produce Pilot Project for School Food will allow up to eight states more autonomy over purchasing whole fruits and vegetable for school meals programs. Priority will go to states with established farm to school programs. The goal is to see whether local autonomy will improve the quality of produce and the amount that is locally sourced.

Senior Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program (Sr FMNP) provides coupons to low-income seniors in every state to use at farmers’ markets.  The Farm Bill reauthorizes the program and it continues to have $20.6 million per year.

Read the intro to the What's Next for Farm Bill Programs series here and stay tuned for the next post in the series.