May 2014 Issue

Deciphering the New Farm Bill
By David Yeager
Today’s Dietitian
Vol. 16 No. 5 P. 26

Experts discuss the issues, implications, and how it will affect sustainability, food insecurity, farming, and the nutrition profession.

Earlier this year, Congress passed the Agriculture Act of 2014, commonly known as the Farm Bill. It was the first time since 2008 that a comprehensive farm bill had been enacted.

In the intervening years, a series of stopgap bills kept America’s agriculture system moving, albeit in fits and starts. The House of Representatives’ Committee on Agriculture estimates that 16 million American jobs depend on our agricultural system, and the new Farm Bill lays out a five-year plan that provides a measure of stability to farmers and other agricultural workers. But its effects are much more far-reaching, as it stands to impact nutrition professionals whether they work in a clinical, business, or community setting.

The act has 12 titles (sections) covering everything from commodities, conservation, and crop insurance to trade, nutrition, and horticulture. There also are titles for credit, rural development, forestry, energy, research, and miscellaneous concerns. Some of these items seemingly have little to do with dietitians, but first impressions can be deceiving.

“The outcomes of the most recent Farm Bill are of utmost importance to dietitians,” says Angie Tagtow, MS, RD, LD, an environmental nutrition consultant and the senior fellow endowed chair at the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture. “This single piece of legislation affects every individual in this country and millions more across the world. This bill directly affects our access to safe and healthful food and outlines conservation measures that ensure we will be able to continue to produce safe and healthful food.”

Nutrition First
The provision that most directly affects dietitians is the nutrition title, which is where most of the bill’s money is allocated. One part of the nutrition title that many RDs cheered is the funding for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Education (SNAP-Ed), which was restored to 2010 levels. SNAP-Ed provides nutrition education to people who receive SNAP benefits—nutrition assistance designed to increase food security—and many SNAP-Ed educators are dietitians.

Unfortunately, the food assistance portion of SNAP was cut by $8 billion over the next 10 years. Although the decrease was much smaller than the one included in the House of Representatives’ version of the bill, it’s still significant. Sarah Trist, MS, RD, public policy committee chair for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ (the Academy) Hunger and Environmental Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group, says this will be the Farm Bill’s most immediate noticeable effect. “Many families will see a cut of upwards of $90 a month which, when you consider that these benefits were never meant to cover the full cost of food, it’s a severe hardship on families that are already pressed to make ends meet,” Trist says. “Antihunger organizations, such as soup kitchens, also will be affected by these cuts, and dietitians will see the effects of increased food insecurity. We know that diabetics whose benefits are reduced are more likely to have disease-related complications. The reduction in benefits is also particularly harmful to child and adolescent development.”

Despite these cuts, some funding in the bill is for programs that reach people in low-income areas. The emergency food assistance program, which helps provide food to food banks, saw a slight increase in funding. Funding also was preserved for the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program, which affords greater access to fruits and vegetables for children in low-income communities. The program’s goal is to expose children to foods they haven’t tried in the hopes that they will choose more healthful alternatives later in life. Trist has helped administer the program, and she says that it encourages kids to eat more fruits and vegetables.

In addition, a new benefit that may further improve access to fruits and vegetables was included in the bill. Stores that accept SNAP benefits now must carry a wider variety of perishable items.

Karen K. Ehrens, RD, LRD, past chair of the Academy’s Legislative and Public Policy Committee, says this will be especially important in areas where few choices exist. “There will be some improvement in food choices available to people who participate in SNAP,” she says. “This probably won’t have much of an effect on grocery stores because they already offer a wide variety of items, but it’s those small corner stores or bodegas, where there’s a limited variety of foods, that maybe now will increase what’s available to purchase with SNAP.”

Greater Access, More Flexibility
Aside from nutrition assistance, the Farm Bill has increased funding for the development of more local and regional sustainable food systems that will give consumers greater access to healthful foods in accordance with dietary guidelines. A common criticism of US agriculture policy is that it isn’t aligned with the government’s dietary recommendations for fruit and vegetable consumption. Although agriculture policy still heavily favors subsidies for row crops, such as corn and soy, there are provisions in the Farm Bill that potentially could increase consumer access to fruits and vegetables.

Ashley Colpaart, MS, RD, 2013-2014 chair of the Academy’s Hunger and Environmental Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group, says some of these initiatives may prove to be important steps toward a sustainable agriculture policy that reflects Americans’ dietary needs. “While the nutrition title is absolutely important, other titles have the potential to create healthy food systems for communities through programs and policy change,” she says. “There’s a lot that RDs can do outside the nutrition title to advocate and utilize those programs in their communities. A lot of RDs will interface with many of those programs as they start emerging.”

The Farm Bill tripled funding for the Farmers’ Market Promotion Program, which provides grants for direct-to-consumer projects, those that promote local and regional food enterprises, and any project that deals with food system processing, food hub aggregation, distribution, storage, or marketing to help establish regional food systems. Funding also was increased for community food projects that focus on the consumer side of food systems and help improve access to fresh fruits and vegetables. Colpaart says RDs can be instrumental in these types of efforts by helping organizations apply for grant funding, acting as consultants on these projects in their communities, or helping to monitor and evaluate them.

Moreover, there will be more flexibility in how consumers use their SNAP benefits. Farmers’ markets and community-supported agriculture operations now can become authorized to accept SNAP. Funding also was increased for the Healthy Incentives Pilot program. Some states and private enterprises will receive grants to implement this program that allows SNAP recipients to boost their buying power. If they select certain items, such as fruits and vegetables, their benefits will increase.

“I’m glad to see that it’s being implemented and, hopefully, it will affect the purchasing decisions made by SNAP recipients. I’m also interested to see how it will affect farmers’ markets and grocery stores,” Ehrens says. “Some of the groups that are doing this already are the Fair Food Network and Wholesome Wave, and these groups have been using funding from other sources such as foundations, for example, to make this work so that SNAP participants get extra benefits to spend on produce. It’ll be interesting to see how long it takes for this pilot program to get up and running and then, once it does, what the results are.”

Funding also was maintained for Farm to School, a $25 million grant program that helps schools overcome barriers to purchasing, preparing, and promoting local products. The grants enable schools to work with farmers in their region to procure local products, including fresh produce. Colpaart says programs like this can be refined and used as models for schools to emulate across the country.

Future Growth
The ability to provide healthful food depends on the ability to grow it. Although progress needs to happen, the Farm Bill does reflect some movement in this direction. Guaranteed funding was allocated for the Specialty Crop Research Initiative, which administers block grants through state agriculture departments, covering a wide variety of nutrition and food safety programs and research. “Specialty crops” is the term given to fruits, vegetables, nuts, and berries.

Additional funding was provided for the Beginning Farmers and Ranchers Development Program. As America’s farmers and ranchers age, it’s becoming increasingly important to train new ones. The program has a special emphasis on the recruitment of returning veterans.

Organic agriculture also received a boost. Many small farmers use organic methods but aren’t certified as organic because of the cost of documenting the process. There’s new funding available to help offset that cost. Moreover, there’s additional funding for organic marketing research and a provision to allow organic producers to develop their own marketing programs through the USDA, separate from marketing programs for traditional commodities, such as beef or milk.

Dietitian’s Wish List
However, the United States still has plenty of work to do before Americans reach optimal nutrition levels. Colpaart would like to have seen more funding for perennial crops research that includes onions, artichokes, yams, kale, arugula, spinach, asparagus, and beans. She thinks perennials are essential for building sustainable food systems.

“One thing that I think could have been addressed better is the possibility of breeding and raising perennial table vegetables and legumes,” Colpaart says. “Traditionally, our agriculture is focused on crops like soy and corn, which are annually planted and harvested. Perennial crops provide an opportunity to increase soil fertility while reducing agricultural runoff and damage to the land. So producing perennial table vegetables or, at least, increasing research into the possibility of breeding those vegetables would be good not only for nutrition but also for environmental and conservation practices and long-term biodiversity.”

Row crop subsidies, however, will ensure that they continue to be grown over the life of the bill, and specialty crops, such as fruits and vegetables, will continue to take a back seat. Aside from nutrition concerns, the issue of subsidies speaks to a larger issue: the overall health of the ecosystem. Large monocultures can cause soil depletion if they aren’t rotated regularly, and they require large infusions of fertilizer and often pesticides and herbicides.

“I wanted to see more robust incentives for conservation and land preservation [in the Farm Bill],” Tagtow says. “One may ask what that has to do with our food supply. My response to that is, if soil erosion and water contamination continue at current rates, it will become increasingly more difficult to grow certain crops, if any crops, in the future. Combined with erratic weather conditions, our land is becoming less resilient, resulting in loss of ability to grow crops or raise livestock. Appropriate conservation measures on agricultural land boosts the ability to be able to produce viable, marketable crops for future generations.”

The new bill also makes it harder for nonprofit research organizations to compete for federal dollars. It requires nongovernment organizations and private research institutions to provide a 100% match on government funds for competitive research projects, a difficult level to attain. Colpaart says this will make it much tougher for newer experimental approaches to be evaluated.

RD Advocacy
According to Colpaart, dietitians increasingly are being asked about how US agriculture systems relate to health outcomes and food access, yet some tend to avoid the subject. To more effectively address clients’ and patients’ needs, Colpaart suggests RDs learn more about agriculture policy and recommends the Academy’s new “Standards of Professional Performance for Registered Dietitian Nutritionists (Competent, Proficient, and Expert) in Sustainable, Resilient, and Healthy Food and Water Systems” as a helpful resource. Learning about agriculture policy may seem secondary to dietitians’ professional goals, but it affects their profession in numerous ways, whether RDs are involved through the Academy, on a community level, or by teaching at a university and getting the next generation of dietitians involved, Colpaart says.

Because of their nutrition and public health expertise, dietitians can bring a wealth of insight to this debate. By advocating for better access to healthful foods, RDs can help bring necessary structural changes to US farming and food systems. They also can position themselves to influence future farm bills.

“Developing a relationship with your representatives is so important,” Trist says. “Let them know who you are, what your expertise is, and how you’re interacting with their constituents. Regularly support them, when there’s a good reason to, and offer your expertise to them now so that you have a great relationship when a bill like this comes into play. Dietitians who are well versed in the Farm Bill and other legislation should be looking for colleagues and students to mentor and start working with them to help them build relationships with their representatives because we need all dietitians to be active on issues like this.”

— David Yeager is a freelance writer and editor in Royersford, Pennsylvania.

 

Resources
• Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics “Standards of Professional Performance for Registered Dietitian Nutritionists (Competent, Proficient, and Expert) in Sustainable, Resilient, and Healthy Food and Water Systems” (www.andjrnl.org/article/S2212-2672(13)01682-1/fulltext)

• Fruit and Vegetable Programs: Specialty Crop Block Grant Program (www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/getfile?dDocName=STELPRDC5105139)

• Fair Food Network: Double Up Food Bucks (http://doubleupfoodbucks.org)

• National Farm to School Network (www.farmtoschool.org)

• National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (http://sustainableagriculture.net)

• Perennial Vegetables (http://perennialvegetables.org)

• Wholesome Wave (http://wholesomewave.org)

• USDA 2014 Farm Bill Highlights (www.usda.gov/documents/usda-2014-farm-bill-highlights.pdf)

• USDA Food, Farm, and Jobs Bill (www.usda.gov/wps/portal/usda/usdahome?navid=farmbill)

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