Lapsed Farm Bill Hurts Central Texas Farmers and Low-income Families

October 1, 2018 | 2:32 pm
Photo: Sustainable Food Center
Sarah Reinhardt
Former Contributor

When you think of Texas, a thriving local food scene probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind—but a visit to the SFC Farmers’ Market in downtown Austin might change that. The market draws large crowds every Saturday, and it plays a vitally important role in this city: linking small and midsize farmers across central Texas with customers—including those who shop using benefits from federal nutrition assistance programs—who are hungry for fresh produce and a sense of community.

But far from Austin, the federal law that gives markets like this one a leg up are in limbo. Congress has just allowed the last five-year farm bill to expire, having failed to pass a new one by the September 30 deadline. I spoke with Joy Casnovsky, the deputy director of the Sustainable Food Center (SFC) in Austin, to learn more about how federally-funded programs in the farm bill have helped make a difference in communities throughout Texas, and what’s now at stake.

A Saturday at the SFC farmer’s market

“We get a lot of phone calls from people who want to know about the market, and we know people are coming from all over to get here,” says Casnovsky of the downtown market. “There are families, older people, younger people, people doing their exercise routine, folks with kids, folks without kids.” SFC, with a mission and history of helping the central Texas food system thrive, now supports two weekly farmers’ markets and community farm stands featuring more than 60 local farmers, artisans, and food producers.

“It’s a hub. And if we can get folks to come to the market and chat with us, it’s a great way for them to get more information about how to use their benefits.”

The “benefits” Casnovsky is referring to include nutrition assistance benefits the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), and the Farmers Market Nutrition Program (WIC FMNP), which offers additional produce vouchers for WIC clients. (Think of it as WIC’s trusty farm-fresh sidekick.)

Photo: Sustainable Food Center

The signs all over the market send a clear message that shoppers who use these programs are welcome here. Not only can SNAP, WIC and WIC FMNP be used at the markets, but they can be doubled through SFC’s Double Dollar Program. The program itself, which can be used by shoppers each week, is pretty simple: show up, swap out up to $30 of your SNAP or WIC benefits for up to $60 Double Dollars, and start spending them on fruits and vegetables from local farmers. (Followed by go home, eat up, and feel good.)

But what’s incredibly complicated about programs like Double Dollars? Getting Congress to pass the bill that funds them.

The real losers of the Farm Bill fight: Local farmers and families

The grant that made Double Dollars possible is part of the farm bill, an enormous piece of legislation that touches nearly everything in our food system, from farm to fork. The deadline for Congress to renew this legislation without disruption came and went on Sunday, and every additional day they delay in passing a new one is a day without funding for such grants.

Though the House and the Senate Agriculture Committees passed their respective versions in late June, the dramatic differences in the two have proven irreconcilable for the committee charged with drafting a final farm bill. Much of the tension has to do with ill-considered and onerous new work requirements in SNAP, which were proposed in the House bill despite overwhelming opposition from leading health and nutrition groups.

Some programs, like SNAP itself, will see continued funding in the absence of a new farm bill. Many smaller and related programs will not—including those providing critical support to small farmers and low-income families in communities across Texas.

SFC launched the Double Dollars program in 2012 with the support of a grant program called the Farmers Market Promotion Program (FMPP). It was the first of its kind in Texas. “When we launched this in 2012, we only did it at one market,” Casnovsky told me. “And then we expanded it to our three other markets. And then we expanded it to markets run by other associations. It went from being a pilot to being at 16 different locations.”

“Had we not gotten that grant, I can’t say how we would have launched at all. The FMPP grant gave us the catalyst we needed to start the program, and improve it and expand it over time. That initial investment helped us get additional funding from elsewhere, too.”

Similar initiatives have sprung up across Texas and all over the country in recent years. Double Up Food Bucks, a Michigan-born model that helps shoppers double the value of SNAP dollars spent at markets and grocery stores, began operating at 10 new Texas farmers markets just this spring—adding to its growing list of hundreds of markets served nationwide. Unlike Double Dollars, Double Up Food Bucks is supported by grants from the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive (FINI) program, a highly popular grant program introduced in the 2014 farm bill to incentivize fruit and vegetable purchases by low-income consumers. During its first five years, FINI helped more than 300,000 families put healthy food on the table, and supported more than 1,000 local farmers in the process. But this funding, too, is halted without a new farm bill—leaving many markets and the communities they support hanging in the balance.

What now?

With funding sources like the FMPP, FINI, and more now stranded, we need to tell Congress that it’s past time to pass a new farm bill.

This isn’t just about a handful of programs—it’s about maintaining the progress we’ve made in building a stronger food system for all of us. Casnovsky, who is now working with the Sustainable Food Center to seek grant funding for their next local foods project, put it this way: “I see that affecting all of Texas. It may not be our organization going after the grant next time—it may be another city or another town going after it—but that affects our food system and infrastructure. We are one big network, and we’re starting to understand how our efforts can really lift all boats.”

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