Coalition Report: Jobs & Prosperity at Our Table

by Kathleen Logan Smith, Executive Director Missouri Coalition for the Environment

In this column, we’ve been learning more about the U.S. Farm Bill, the package of legislation that impacts our food system- what is grown, how it’s grown, and how much it costs. The Farm Bill, or the Food Bill as it should be known, is reauthorized every five years or so by Congress. The next one will be written in 2012.

Last month, Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) issued a report “Market Forces” about the economic power of local food and its job-creating benefits. The report notes that local food markets have expanded across the nation. America now has more than 7,000 farmers markets. Local food has found its way into restaurants, schools, stores, and fridges.  Local foods are good for economies because a greater percentage of the sales revenue is retained locally. When we spend our dollars locally we can make Missouri a more prosperous state.

And yet we are still getting most of our food from thousands of miles away. Our farmers are still squeezed. Missouri has lost more than 11,000 dairy operations since 1980 as industrial milk from California fills store shelves. Our government is buying up surplus poultry generated from industrialized operations to keep prices from going ridiculously below the cost of production. The industrialized meat system just recalled 36 million pounds of contaminated ground turkey while local, independent producers struggle to get access to markets.

Missouri spends about $15 billion on food. Despite industrialized agribusiness’ claims that we must grow industrialized crops to “feed the world”, we are not doing that. We’re not even feeding ourselves. Missouri exports less than $4 billion in agricultural exports and more than half of this is not for food for people. It’s for cotton and animal feed. What would it look like if most of the $15 billion we spend on food for Missourians stayed in Missouri? It’s money that we are already spending. How can we spend it smarter?

First we must restore Missouri’s food system. Right now, Missouri depends on food from out of state and out of the region to eat. In a state that can grow everything from rice to cherries, why is our food deficit around $10 billion? Why are our millions of ag acres not growing food for our tables? The answer is in the Food Bill. The Food Bill subsidizes soybeans, cotton, rice, wheat, and corn with price supports, insurance, and credit benefits that crops like sweet potatoes and blueberries do not get. It underwrites industrialized livestock production that contributes to over-supply. Subsidized crops also get millions of dollars in University research support that help keep farmers tied to them.

In contrast, most farmers growing food for families and farmers markets grow multiple crops throughout a season. And one way to help more farmers grow more of these crops would be to provide effective “whole farm” insurance products. Right now Food Bill insurance programs provide greatly outsized benefits for the specialized, mass production of program crops (corn, soybeans, wheat cotton and rice). Diversified farmers with dozens of crops find themselves at a distinct disadvantage in the absence of comparable insurance support.

In addition to covering more food crops, the UCS study, “Market Forces” (http://www.ucsusa.org) outlines other key elements in the Food Bill that could be tweaked to rebalance American food policy back toward feeding us all. It notes that very modest public funding for 100-500 farmers markets could create as many as 13,500 jobs in five years. Jobs and food are two necessities for every family. Local food helps with both.

The Food Bill’s smaller and lesser known programs are facing the budget ax. The National Organic Certification Cost Share Program helps farmers pay for a portion of the certification that can help bring a higher value for crops. The Specialty Crop Block Grant Program attempts to affect agriculture beyond the five commodity crops. And the Federal State Marketing Improvement Program gives relatively tiny ($8,000-$75,000) grants that have big impact. Missouri local producers benefit from all of these as we move toward a local food system. Missouri towns like Sedalia, Kansas City, Columbia and Foristell have received funding for projects to strengthen local food infrastructure. Many of the grants helped install machines to help low income Missourians receiving food assistance, now 1 in six of us, use their food benefit at farmers markets for fresh healthy food.

The Food Bill needs our attention because what it does and what it does not do will affect how many acres in Missouri grow food we can eat. It will mean the difference between monopolies and choices in the marketplace. And it can instill self reliance, prosperity, and resilience in our food system that strengthens our food security. An outdated Food Bill that lets lobbyists pick the winners will not serve us well.  Commit yourself to engaging in the Food Bill. Start by buying local.

Visit our booth at the Food & Farmers Expo, Sept. 18, at the Webster Groves Recreation Center.