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The Farm Bill: Searching for Common Ground

posted on Fri, Dec 10 2010 10:58 am by Jill Krueger

Farm Bill

A recent Webinar sponsored by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy has me thinking.

On the surface the Webinar was about policy regarding soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages. Specifically, the presenters discussed prohibiting use of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits to purchase sugar-sweetened beverages. They also talked about taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages.

On another level, the Webinar was about how the public health and anti-hunger communities can work together. The issues surrounding soda and sugar-sweetened beverages are important, but I want to write here about the opportunities to find common ground—among and between public health advocates and professionals, the anti-hunger and food security community and farmers.

The temptation when we discuss any policy issue, whether soda or health reform or the Farm Bill, is to decide our position and then look for arguments and talking points to back it up. But giving in to this temptation doesn’t necessarily make for success in the policy arena. Many skilled negotiators prepare for policy discussions by focusing upon interests, rather than positions. That is, if one party favors making soda ineligible for SNAP benefits, and another party favors retaining eligibility, there isn’t a great deal for them to talk about, beyond stating their positions and the arguments that support them.

But if the parties talk about their underlying interests—in eliminating childhood obesity or in ensuring that low-income persons are treated with respect—they may find they have more to talk about. Focusing on listening and expressing interests allows the parties to work together in a creative process to invent options for mutual gain.

Here are three ideas that have the potential to receive the support of a variety of groups with a stake in the next Farm Bill:

1. Incentives for purchasing healthy foods. This was one area of potential common ground proposed during the Webinar. Private foundations and state and local governments were the first innovators with “double bucks” programs, many of which provide an extra dollar of nutrition assistance for each dollar spent on healthy foods, such as fruits and vegetables. The 2008 Farm Bill dedicated $20 million to the Healthy Incentives Pilot program (HIP), which will provide an additional 30 cents in SNAP benefits for every dollar spent on fruits and vegetables and will be carried out among SNAP vendors and recipients in Hampden County, Massachusetts.

HIP appears to provide options for mutual gain—for making healthy food more accessible for people in low-income households while providing markets for farmers. Yet in the current economic climate, budget considerations will play a large role in determining which programs begin or end, which ones continue and which ones expand. What kind of agricultural and nutrition policies will help make the healthy choice the easy choice? What policies will honor the human dignity of low-income persons? Will the stakeholders collaborate to prioritize funding for HIP?

2. Ease restrictions on planting fruits and vegetables. Farmers enrolled in the main farm commodity program are currently prohibited from growing fruits and vegetables on acres enrolled in the program. These rules were adopted in part as a form of supply management for fruits and vegetables, so this approach will need to be carefully developed in order to address the concerns of current fruit and vegetable growers. A provision in the 2008 Farm Bill included a pilot project to allow farmers in some states to plant vegetables for processing on program acres, with an acre-for-acre reduction in payments. What policies will make fruits and vegetables more accessible to all while supporting a market where farmers and farmworkers can make a living?

3. The Healthy Food Financing Initiative. Started in Pennsylvania, this initiative provided loans and grants to establish or modernize grocery stores and other markets in underserved communities. A federal initiative has been proposed in the president’s budget and in recent legislation introduced in both houses. Again, what policies are feasible in this economic climate? What is the evidence that  expenditures to expand food access help prevent the need for other expenditures, including health care?

I don’t claim to have all the answers, but I am fairly certain that we need to begin by asking the right questions, listening to the other stakeholders and articulating the underlying public health interests implicated by the Farm Bill. The task of searching for and expanding common ground among the public health, anti-hunger and farming communities is an urgent one, for the next Farm Bill and beyond.

This information was developed by Jill Krueger, Senior Attorney for the Network for Public Health Law – National Coordinating Center at the Public Health Law Center. Before coming to the Network, Jill was the lead author of a report analyzing the 2008 Farm Bill.

The Network for Public Health Law provides information and technical assistance on issues related to public health. The legal information and assistance provided in this document does not constitute legal advice or legal representation. For legal advice, readers should consult a lawyer in their state.

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