Public Policy Engagement

March 2023 Policy Connection

Congressional News 

Agriculture Resilience Act Reintroduced 

Representative Chellie Pingree (D-ME) has reintroduced one of the largest climate-focused “marker bills,” or a bill that can be folded into a larger bill, for inclusion in the 2023 Farm Bill. Still, parts that are not included in the 2023 Farm Bill could end up as independent legislation. The Agriculture Resilience Act is broken into six parts. Specifically, this bill aims to: 

  1. Increase Research: ensure existing agriculture research programs prioritize climate change research, increase funding for USDA’s Regional Climate Hubs, support public breed and cultivar research, and create a new SARE Agricultural and Food System Resilience Initiative for farmer and rancher research and demonstration grants.
  2. Improve Soil Health: create a new soil health grant program for state and tribal governments, authorize USDA to offer performance-based crop insurance discounts for practices that reduce climate risk, expand the National Agroforestry Center by authorizing three additional regional centers, and provide more technical assistance and flexibility in USDA conservation programs to support climate-smart practices.
  3. Protect existing farmland and support farm viability: increase funding for the Local Agriculture Market Program to help keep local farms profitable and create a new subprogram for farm viability and local climate resilience centers to help farmers reach new markets. The bill would also increase funding for the Agriculture Conservation Easement Program to make farmland affordable for the next generation. 
  4. Support pasture-based livestock systems: create a new alternative manure management program to support an array of livestock methane management strategies and establish a new grant program to help small meat processors cover the costs associated with meeting federal inspection guidelines.
  5. Boost investments in on-farm energy initiatives: increase funding for the Rural Energy for America Program to prioritize low-emissions electrification projects and direct USDA to study dual-use renewable energy and cropping or livestock systems.
  6. Reduce food waste: standardize food date labels to reduce consumer confusion about the shelf life of foods, create a new USDA program to reduce food waste in schools, and increase federal support for food waste research and outreach, composting, and anaerobic digestion food waste-to-energy projects.

Earlier this month, sustainable farmers and advocates across the country joined together in Washington D.C. to call on Congress to support the ARA at the Rally for Resilience, an event SAFSF was proud to sponsor. A significant number of national, regional, and cooperative organizations have expressed support for the ARA. 

SNAP in the Spotlight

As has been the case in recent farm bill debates, attacks are mounting on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). House Agriculture Committee member Rep. Dusty Johnson (R-SD)  introduced the America Works Act, which would increase work requirements and expand the age bracket for Able Bodied Adults Without Dependents (ABAWDS) as well as restrict state’s ability to file work requirement exemption waivers. This proposal is deeply harmful and does not acknowledge the fact that SNAP already has significant eligibility restrictions. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities notes that, “altogether more than 10 million people, about 1 in 4 SNAP participants, live in households that would be at risk of losing food assistance benefits under this bill.” 

Still, key leaders of the House Agriculture Committee are remaining steadfast in support for the food assistance program. Rep. David Scott, Ranking Member of the House Agriculture Committee, pushed back against this and other extreme proposals during a committee hearing featuring USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack. Rep. Scott also noted in an op-ed published in The Hill, “defending and protecting the SNAP in this year’s farm bill is critical for the well-being of America’s families…calls to gut the program and add onerous work requirements are disconnected from reality.” House Agriculture Chairman G.T. Thompson has not endorsed Rep. Johnson’s bill and during the hearing reiterated his four “principles” on SNAP: innovation, moving participants to independence, rooting out fraud and promoting healthy foods within the program.

In the upper chamber, Sen. John Boozman (R-AR), and ranking member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, and Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), have also expressed anger over USDA’s 2021 update to the Thrifty Food Plan, which informs SNAP benefit calculations, and have called for tightened work requirements and for benefits to return to pre-pandemic levels. Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), however, is not entertaining these ideas. In a committee hearing earlier this month, Chairwoman Stabenow noted “We cannot go backward at a time when our farmers and families need us most.”

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), has also reintroduced a bill to allow Puerto Rico to fully access SNAP. 

Expanding Access to School Meals 

House Agriculture Committee members have introduced two separate bills to expand federal reimbursements for school lunches and school breakfasts. The current reimbursement increases of 40 cents per school lunch and 15 cents per school breakfast, included in the Keep Kids Fed Act of 2022, are set to expire on June 30, 2023. 

Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-VA) and Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA) introduced the Helping Schools Feed Kids Act to extend increased reimbursement rates through the 2023-2024 school year. This bill would also direct USDA to review opportunities to reduce administrative burdens on school food authorities. 

Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA) has introduced the “Healthy Meals Help Kids Learn Act,” which would permanently increase the federal reimbursement level for all free, reduced-price, and paid-rate school meals by 45 cents for every lunch served and 28 cents for every breakfast served, with a yearly adjustment.

While the federal government debates these proposals, many states have succeeded in passing or introducing legislation in support of universal free school meals. Minnesota just became the 4th state to do so, joining California, Colorado, and Maine. Massachusetts, Nevada, and Vermont are serving free lunch until the end of the current school year. 

On the administrative side, USDA is awarding $50 million in grants through the Healthy Meals Incentives Initiative, to four organizations, including the Chef Ann Foundation, an SAFSF member, to manage the School Food System Transformation Challenge Sub-Grants. These grants will “foster innovation in the school food marketplace to get a wider variety of healthy, appealing foods into the marketplace and onto kids’ lunch trays.”

USDA also proposed a rule to expand the number of schools eligible to opt into the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), thereby expanding the number of students that can access free school meals. Specifically, the rule would lower the minimum identified student percentage (ISP) participation threshold from 40% to 25%.

For more information on the current state of school meal policy, check out this Politico Pro report. 

Administrative + Agency News

Biden Administration releases Fiscal Year 2024 Budget 

Released on March 9, President Biden’s FY24 budget requests a total of $6.8 trillion. This includes just over $30.1B in discretionary funding for USDA, approximately 14% more than FY23, and calls for increases in a variety of programs that support climate resilience, nutrition assistance, and farmer livelihoods, among other key priorities. Discretionary programs are those authorized by previous farm bills, or other agricultural authorization bills, whereby program funding is determined by the annual appropriations bill. 

USDA has released an FY24 budget summary, though it does clock in at 124 pages. Secretary Vilsack noted several key requests

  • $32 billion for Child Nutrition Programs
  • $15 billion over 10 years to expand the Community Eligibility Program to allow more states and schools to provide free school meals 
  • $1.2 billion for USDA conservation programs 
  • $240 million to support new supply chains and markets for small and mid-sized farmers
  • $12 million for the Farm to School Program 
  • $370 million for Minority-Serving Institution (MSI) programs 

Now, the ball is in Congress’s court to develop a set of budget resolutions and appropriations bills, led by the House and Senate Appropriations Committees, to send back to Biden’s desk. If Congress cannot agree on new funding levels before the end of the fiscal year on October 1, 2023, they must pass a Continuing Resolution (as you may recall from this past fall). Learn more about the annual appropriations process here

Key takeaway: advocating for appropriate program funding levels in the appropriations process is key to any successful policy advocacy strategy. The work does not stop after legislation, such as a farm bill, is passed. After all, people must be able to access programs for them to be effective. 

Upcoming USDA grant deadlines 

There are many open USDA funding opportunities that may be of interest to you and your grantees with deadlines this spring. Please explore this list and share widely! 

One such opportunity is the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, which help beginning farmers and ranchers enter and/or improve their successes in farming, ranching, and management of nonindustrial private forest lands, through support for projects that provide education, mentoring, and technical assistance to give beginning farmers and ranchers the knowledge, skills, and tools needed to make informed decisions for their operations and enhance their sustainability. Applications are due April 27. 

New USDA Report: Promoting fair competition and innovation in seeds and other agricultural inputs

In response to Biden’s Executive Order Number 14036, “Promoting Competition in America’s Economy,” USDA’s recently released report outlines steps to address a deeply consolidated seed industry. Currently, just four companies—BASF, Bayer, Corteva and Syngenta—control more than 60% of the commercial seed marketplace. The same can be said for the beef and pork processing industries.  

The report highlights that USDA has identified opportunities for interagency coordination with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), Department of Justice, and Federal Trade Commission to promote fair competition. As noted by the Organic Seed Alliance, this coordination will allow agencies to assess the impact of seed industry consolidation and IP rights on pricing, choice, and availability of plant varieties and the impact of reduced competition on food security, genetic diversity, and regional food systems. 

White House Kicks Off Challenge to End Hunger and Build Healthy Communities 

Following the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health this past September, the Biden administration has launched a nationwide call-to-action to stakeholders across all of society to make bold commitments to end hunger and reduce diet-related diseases by 2030. Speakers at the March 24 kickoff event included USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, Ambassador Susan Rice, Representative Jim Mcgovern, Senator Debbie Stabenow, Jose Andres, and many community leaders. 

Rachel Roller, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Dohmen Company Foundation (DCF) and Ertharin Cousin, former Executive Director of the UN World Food Programme, called on the philanthropic and investor community to further increase anti-hunger initiatives and programs. Our workshop with funders following the White House Conference and two-page fact sheet provide more information on how funders can advance each pillar of the White House Strategy. 

How is your foundation helping to advance the White House Strategy and increase food and nutrition outcomes in America? Tell us here!