Farm bill, Harvest Boxes top of mind at Food Tank Summit

The farm bill was central to several discussions at the Food Tank Summit yesterday in Washington, D.C. The theme of the summit, which draws hundreds of food system advocates from around the country, was how to cultivate the next generation of food leaders.

The summit opened with a discussion between two Congressional Representatives: Maine’s Chellie Pingree, a Democrat, and Washington State’s Dan Newhouse, a Republican. The representatives self-identified as two of the few farmers who work in Congress — Newhouse grows hops on 650 acres in central Washington, while Pingree runs an organic farm and seasonal restaurant on an island off the coast of Maine.

When asked whether bipartisanship was possible on agricultural issues, the two said that there is more cross-party agreement in farm policy than in many other policy arenas. The farm bill is “not an easy bill to get passed,” said Newhouse, “but within that, there are a lot of things that people agree on. We’re a great example of how Congress could run, and should run.”

Still, they weren’t optimistic that the upcoming farm bill would be delivered on time. Pingree said that despite promises that a draft of the bill could be brought to the floor by the end of the quarter, other pressing matters — like an immigration vote, potential gun reform debates, and finalizing the budget — would likely take priority.

“This farm bill, unlike the last one,” Pingree said, has been mostly negotiated “behind the scenes. Nobody knows too much about it.” She said that the ranking Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, Minnesota’s Collin Peterson, hasn’t even seen the nutrition title of the bill yet. The farm bill’s nutrition title — the part that covers nutrition programs — is regularly its most controversial section, and many expect that to remain true in this cycle.

When speakers on the summit’s other panels were asked how to bring young people into agriculture, they stressed the need to make farming profitable, through the farm bill and other supports. Farmer panelists emphasized that farmers of all types are experiencing financial hardship this year. Emily Zweber, a dairy farmer who joined the Organic Valley co-operative in 2008, described her primary ongoing concern simply: “How are we going to make a living?”

The nutrition title of the farm bill was brought up repeatedly, in the context of both longtime and newly proposed policies. Cecily Upton, the co-founder of FoodCorps, discussed the challenges of the national school lunch program, reminding the audience that school lunch programs are often run for profit. “We’ve got to get to a place where school food is not a business,” she said, and where schools don’t feel a need to “make money on the backs” of students.

President Trump’s Harvest Box idea was also discussed. The proposed program would provide many participants in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, with half their federal benefits in the form of preselected, shelf-stable food items. Tambra Raye Stevenson, the founder of Women Advancing Nutrition, Dietetics, and Agriculture, discouraged support for the boxes. “We don’t need to go in that direction,” she said, emphasizing the importance of “dignity” in federal benefit programs. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue has expressed support for the program, despite a widespread backlash from hunger advocates.

An overarching theme of the conference was how to attract young people of color into farming. Myeasha Taylor, an urban farming specialist at Dreaming Out Loud in Washington, D.C., emphasized the need to expand agricultural education opportunities for farmers of color. “The opportunities and the resources to get into agriculture are not the same across the board,” she said. “The industry is led by white women and white men.”