So, Who Needs a Farm Bill?

By Ed Yowell

What is the Farm Bill Anyway?

If you're a typical New Yorker, one who's not an urban farmer, anyway, you may not know what the "Farm Bill" is, or, if you do, you may not think a whole lot about it. Farm Bills are the roughly quadrennial federal food and agriculture bills that have been around for more than half a century, from the first, in 1933, through the last, the 2008 Farm Bill. Now, Congress is at the threshold of writing the 2012 Farm Bill.

Here is some thought for food...if you think our food starts on farms, you're only part right; it starts also in the policies and programs in the Farm Bill. The Farm Bill the single greatest influence on what we eat.

It determines how billions of our taxpayer dollars are spent shaping our food system, from farmer to eater, and everyone in between. We, in New York City, have an enormous stake in the Farm Bill. After all, about eight million of us spend around $30 billion annually on food.

To give you an idea of the magnitude of the Farm Bill, the 2008 iteration included 15 Titles, or sections, covering just about every segment of our farm and food system. At enactment, the five year cost of the 2008 Farm Bill was estimated to be $284 billion.

The bulk of the funding was dedicated to the Nutrition Title, primarily for SNAP (the Supplementary Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly the Food Stamp program), at $188.9 billion, and to the Commodity Programs Title, for wheat, corn, and other commodity crop price supports and farm income supports, at $41.6 billion.

The next two most highly funded Titles were the Conservation Title, that helps protect our agricultural soil and water resources, at $24.1 billion, and the Crop Insurance and Disaster Assistance Programs Title, that helps indemnify farmers against the consequences of natural disasters, like droughts and floods, at $21.9 billion.

What Does the Farm Bill do for Me?

Presently, more than 1 million of our New York City neighbors rely on SNAP benefits for food on the table. While SNAP is incredibly important to the well-being of many New Yorkers, other Farm Bill programs directly affect us. Organizations in our city, and in our region, have been able to do great work for New York City with aid provided through Farm Bill programs, like:

  • the Senior Farmers' Market Nutrition Program, administered by the New York Department of Agriculture and Markets, that provides participating elderly New Yorkers with coupons they can use to purchase fresh food at farmers' markets;
  • the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, that enabled the Watershed Agricultural Council to implement projects to help protect our New York City water supply;
  • the Farmers Market Promotion Program, that helped Greenmarket, GrowNYC, increase the number of farmers' markets that accept SNAP Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) purchase transactions and assume operation of the Wholesale Farmers Market in the Bronx;
  • the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, that helped Just Food start Farm School, a program to train urban farmers and help promote food sovereignty in neighborhoods with inadequate access to fresh food;
  • and the Community Food Projects Competitive Grants Project, the helped the Lower East Side Girls Club start a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program.

What Should We Want from the New Farm Bill?

Even with the good works made possible by Farm Bill programs, many believe that there are serious problems in our farm and food system that must be addressed in the 2012 Farm Bill. Our food and farm policies have inadequately promoted the production and consumption of healthy foods. Obesity and diet-related diseases have reached epidemic proportions. New York State, $6.1 billion is spent annually fighting diet-related diseases.

Hunger persists in New York City. One in six New York City residents, including more than 400,000 of our children, live in households facing food insecurity. For many families, SNAP benefits run out before the end of the month, forcing families to rely on emergency food programs that are already stretched to and beyond capacity.

Our regional family farmers are threatened by corporate consolidation in our food chain. There are now fewer companies at each step of the food supply chain, making it increasingly difficult for family farms to compete and survive. For every farmer under 30, there are six over 65. We lose farms and farmland at an alarming rate, particularly near large cities, like New York City. Crop insurance does not work well for small-scale, diversified, family farmers, like many Greenmarket farmers, who grow different crops, raise livestock, and add value to their products. Last year's storms, Rita and Lee, demonstrated the inadequacy of federal risk management programs for many New York farmers, as very few received compensation through federal crop insurance and disaster assistance programs.

Food production is connected to the health of our environment. Our current food system accounts for about 20 percent of our national energy consumption and relies heavily on chemical, fossil fuel, and water inputs. Unchecked, such practices can degrade our natural resources, erode our soil, and pollute our air and water.

In the aftermath of the Great Recession, we are left with an unemployment rate of 8.3% and the consensus of many economists is that many of the old jobs lost are not coming back. We can do more to generate food and farm sector economic activity, creating good jobs to produce good food.

The NYC Food and Farm Bill Working Group, consisting of organizational and individual members from the anti-hunger, public health, faith, agricultural, and food justice communities, came together to give New York City, and our region, a voice in shaping the next Farm Bill. They believe that, even in this time of fiscal constraint, Congress must re-evaluate our food and farm policies, maintaining and building upon the most beneficial ones and, when it makes good sense, changing others.

They are calling on Congress to ensure that the next Farm Bill: promotes a health-focused food system; provides an end to hunger and universal access to healthy food; restores competition and fairness in our food system; preserves our vital soil and water resources; and creates vibrant, regional farm and food economies. The Working Group has enunciated these concerns in five principles, with detailed, supporting policy priorities, and sent them all to Congress.

If you want to support the NYC Working Group in this important appeal to Congress, or if you just want to know more, go to

(Note: To learn even more about the Farm Bill, consider attending our event, Food Fight 2012: Why the Farm Bill Matters to All of Us with Author Dan Imhoff.)

Ed Yowell is a member of the Slow Food NYC Board of Directors and a Co-chair, with Martina Rossi Kenworthy, of the SFNYC Urban Harvest in Schools Program. Ed is also a member of the Greenmarket Farmer and Community Advisory Committee and a Co-chair of the Food Systems Network NYC. 

Blog Category:  Farms News Other