On Feb. 7, 2014, President Obama signed the Agricultural Act of 2014, ending one of the longest farm bill debates in U.S. history. Within its nearly 1,000 pages are included numerous provisions that should serve to strengthen local food systems, both on the supply side and on the demand side.
As of the 2007 Census of Agriculture, about 2% of total U.S. food sales ($4.8 billion) were within local markets—about one quarter direct to consumers through outlets such as farmers markets, with the remainder through local grocery stores or restaurants. The overall local share seems likely to increase when the new Census estimates are released in May 2014, as the number of farmers markets in the United States has increased about 80% since 2007.
The 2014 Act establishes no major new programs in the local and regional food systems space, but several key programs received funding increases over what had been allocated in the 2008 farm bill, as well as statutory changes that make certain programs more accessible to local-focused projects and efforts. There was additional funding for the Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program (previously the Farmers Market Program), which will now also provide grants to non-profits or commercial enterprises that process, distribute, aggregate or store locally or regionally produced foods.
The Horticulture title (Title X) also expanded funding for the Specialty Crop Block Grant Program, which is given to states based on their share of national specialty crop production and distributed by state departments of agriculture. These funds often support farm-to-school initiatives, farmer food safety training, food hubs, processing businesses and marketing research. In addition, the Value-added Marketing Grants in the Rural Development title (Title VI) received higher funding levels in the 2014 farm bill than it had gotten in the 2008 bill. The program will be more focused on projects which create or expand marketing opportunities for small- and medium-sized farmers, beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers, and veterans seeking to go into farming or ranching.
On the demand side, the farm bill’s Nutrition Title (Title IV) now allows Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits to be used by a household to buy shares in Community-Supported Agriculture projects (CSAs). The title also allocates $100 million over five years for the development of projects designed to encourage increased purchases of fruits and vegetables by SNAP recipients, such as the “Double-up Food Bucks” vouchers introduced for use in Michigan and Ohio farmers markets in 2009. It also includes an eight-state pilot project for schools to purchase locally-produced unprocessed fruits and vegetables for their students.
A 2011 study by the Union of Concerned Scientists found that local food system expansion can stimulate rural economies and create jobs, enhance food security by providing a greater diversity of food sources in case of crop failures or foodborne illness outbreaks, promote healthier eating habits, especially among low-income populations, and potentially reduce the U.S. food sector’s environmental footprint, although the few empirical studies in this last area show mixed results. Many gaps still persist in research on the various impacts of local food systems. The farm bill provides authority for the creation of a new local food production data collection and program evaluation initiative to compile important data that would be helpful in this area, however, no mandatory funds were provided for this initiative.
In any case, there appears to be ample scope for this sector of U.S. agriculture to continue its expansion as a complement to a thriving conventional agricultural system. — Stephanie Mercier, Agricultural Perspectives