June 2023 Policy Connection

The Policy Connection is a regular digital publication for SAFSF members, providing insights into key policy issues for sustainable agriculture and food systems. Blog post will now be embedded within the recurring publication to provide space for deeper sharing of news and resources.

Congressional News

House and Senate Committees Advance Food and Ag Appropriations Bills 

From public health to environmental protection, to food assistance, to the military, the annual appropriations process influences the entire economy and funds government services essential to our collective well-being. 

On the agriculture and food side of the equation, the House Appropriations Committee advanced a Republican-led bill to slash funding for USDA and FDA to 2007 levels. At $17.8B, the bill proposes funding levels much lower than the spending caps negotiated in the Biden-McCarthy debt ceiling framework. The bill also claws back billions of dollars from the Inflation Reduction Act and includes multiple harmful policy riders, one of which would prevent USDA from writing, preparing, or publishing proposed rules to strengthen the Packers and Stockyards Act. The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition and 101 groups circulated a sign on letter outlining exactly why this rider will serve to further subject farmers and ranchers to abusive and anti-competitive behavior.

The counterpart bill advanced unanimously in the Senate Appropriations Committee would provide $25.993 billion for FY24 for these areas, or more than $8 billion more than the House bill. Notably, the Senate bill would fully fund WIC and SNAP, and would not impose any new eligibility requirements. 

As FY23 funding expires on September 30th, Congress has approximately three months to reconcile these starkly different bills and decide funding levels across agencies and programs in FY24. 

Nutrition Incentives Could Get a Bump in the 2023 Farm Bill

Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Representative Lisa Blunt (D-DE) introduced the Opt for Health with SNAP (OH SNAP), Close the Fruit and Vegetable Gap Act of 2023 to make SNAP dollars go further and increase access to fresh fruits and vegetables. 

The bill would increase mandatory funding for the Gus Schumacher Nutrition Incentive Program (GusNIP) to $3.5 billion over the 5 years of the 2023 Farm Bill and authorize $100 million of discretionary funding annually for 5 years. The bill would also eliminate the local cost share requirement, which Senator Booker’s office notes have prevented local implementers from being able to apply for and sustain the program.

Mark Nicholson, Senior Director of Public Policy at Fair Food Network (SAFSF Member) has more on the “win-win-win” of nutrition incentives. 

Senate Sets Sites on Foreign Ownership of Farm Land

Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) and Senator Joni Ernst (R-IA) joined forces to expand federal oversight of foreign land ownership, citing that USDA’s current system has allowed foreign ownership of U.S. land to nearly double in the last decade to over 37 million acres.

The Foreign Agricultural Restrictions to Maintain Local Agriculture and National Defense (FARMLAND) Act would amend the Agricultural Foreign Investment Disclosure Act (AFIDA) of 1978 and update the authority of the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) to better consider agriculture needs when making determinations affecting national security. 

If this sounds familiar, it’s because foreign ownership of farmland has come under increasing scrutiny in recent years. Just in February 2023, a bi-partisan coalition in the House and Senate introduced the Promoting Agriculture Safeguards and Security (PASS) Act, which would prohibit China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea from purchasing U.S. agricultural land and agricultural companies, and requires a Presidential waiver for any exceptions. 

To be sure, foreign ownership of farmland can indeed cause accountability issues and more data is needed on farmland ownership. However, these legislative efforts can overshadow the damaging impact of corporate and/or investor ownership and consolidation of farmland. As investor ownership drives up land prices, it becomes harder and harder for small and mid-size farmers to stay on the land, and harder for beginning farmers and ranchers to enter the market. In other words, focusing solely on foreign ownership, and not domestic corporate ownership, impedes a clear discussion of the issue. 

House Announces Bipartisan Working Group on Agriculture Labor 

House Ag Committee Chairman GT Thompson and Ranking Member David Scott have announced a new working group on workforce challenges faced by farmers and ranchers across the U.S. The working group will be co-chaired by Representatives Rick Crawford (R-AR-1) and Don Davis (D-NC-01) and will:

  • Seek input from stakeholders, employers, and workers, particularly emphasizing the H-2A visa program for nonimmigrant agricultural workers.
  • Produce an interim report detailing the program’s shortcomings and the impacts on food security.
  • File a final report with recommendations to address the flaws within the program.

This working group comes as Congress has tried and failed on multiple occasions to provide H-2A farmworkers a path to citizenship. Most recently, the House passed the Farmworkforce Modernization Act in 2021, though the Senate failed to do in 2022 despite a last ditch effort by Senator Michael Bennet (D-CO). 

Administrative + Agency News

USDA Boosts Funding for School Meal Programs and Food Banks by $2.7 Billion

With funding made available through the Commodity Credit Corporation (CCC), USDA will provide nearly $1.3 billion for states to purchase foods to be distributed to schools for their meal programs and nearly $1 billion for states to order commodities from USDA vendors for emergency food providers, like food banks and community kitchens. This decision comes after food aid expansion during the pandemic came to an end in March. 

Originally established as emergency funds in the Depression era, Agriculture secretaries have broad discretion to use CCC funds. Trump administration USDA secretary Sonny Perdue used CCC funds to bail out farmers impacted by tariffs. 

USDA to Invest  $300 million to Increase Land, Capital, and Market Access for Underserved Producers

USDA has selected 50 projects for potential award that will work to increase access to farm ownership opportunities, improve results for those with heirs’ property or fractionated land, increase access to markets and capital that affect the ability to access land and improve land ownership, land succession, and agricultural business planning. A full list of the selected projects is available here.

USDA Announces $262 Million to Train the Next Generation for Careers in Agriculture

Funded by the Inflation Reduction Act, the “From Learning to Leading: Cultivating the Next Generation of Diverse Food and Agriculture Professionals Program” will be housed within the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), and aims to “build and sustain the next generation of food, agriculture, natural resources, and human sciences workforce.” 

Eligible institutions include 1890 Land-grant Universities, 1994 Tribal Colleges and Universities, Hispanic-serving Institutions (HSI), Alaska Native-serving and Native Hawaiian-serving Institutions, and institutions of higher education located in the insular areas, as well as their partners. The $262.5 million investment will provide training and support to more than 20,000 future food and agricultural leaders through 33 project partners.

USDA notes that the NextGen Program supports the USDA Equity Cimmission’s interim recommendations to remove barriers to inclusion and access at USDA, including strengthening research, extension, and teaching in the food and agricultural sciences at all minority-serving institutions. 

USDA Unveils New Tools to Track Federally Funded Investments

USDA has announced two new data dashboards that allow users the ability to access high-level data about the National Institute of Food and Agriculture’s (NIFA) agricultural research funding investments and track the status of their grant applications. 

The NIFA Grant Funding Dashboard allows users to search for information related to requirements, waivers, and the amount of match funding provided by recipient type and award. Users can also explore a funding map to find NIFA funding obligations by states and congressional districts.

The NIFA Application Status Dashboard enables users to quickly check the status of their application using their assigned tracking number.  

FNS Releases FY22 Annual Report on Food and Nutrition Programs

USDA administers 15 domestic food and nutrition assistance programs that affect the lives of millions of people and account for roughly two-thirds of USDA’s annual budget. The Food and Nutrition Service issued a new report that examines trends in USDA’s largest domestic food and nutrition assistance programs including SNAP, WIC, P-EBT, and Child Nutrition Programs. The report also documents policy changes in FY22 and social and economic trends affecting participation in and spending on food and nutrition assistance programs.

State Legislative News

Vermont Becomes 6th State to Pass Universal Free School Meals

At the beginning of the pandemic, Congress authorized USDA to provide waivers for all schools nationally to waive eligibility requirements and provide universal school meals from March 2020 through June 2022. When this federal funding ended, the Vermont state legislature opted to use state funding to continue the policy through the 2023 school year. Now, as in California, Maine, New Mexico, Colorado, and Minnesota, all public schools in Vermont will make school breakfast and lunch permanently available to all students at no charge, regardless of family income.  

Republican Governor Phil Scott allowed H. 165 to become law without his signature, owing to a veto-proof majority in the Vermont General Assembly and wide support among Vermonters. The law will take effect July 1 and is expected to cost $29 million per year.

If you attended the session, “Free for All: Supporting State Universal School Meals Advocacy,” at the SAFSF Forum, you learned about the instrumental role Hunger Free Vermont played in making universal school meals a reality in Vermont. Executive Director Anore Horton spoke about her passion for the policy back in February. 

More than two dozen other states across the U.S. are currently in some stage of discussion about universal school meal legislation for the 2023-2024 school year and beyond.