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Food Policy and Security: from Farm to Table and Classroom

Food Policy and Security: from Farm to Table and Classroom

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

PERMALINK: http://www.progressivestates.org/node/23787

Growing-Economy

BY Caroline FAN

Food Policy and Security: from Farm to Table and Classroom

Food is at the center of our lives - the average American spends 1 of every 8 dollars on food and public policy plays a crucial role in whether that food is healthy and safe for our families.  Disease outbreaks due to unsafe food, rising obesity rates and environmental concerns about wasteful agricultural practices have all focused attention on advancing new policies to improve both food safety and better nutrition in our communities.

Improving healthy eating is also a budgetary issue for many states.  In 2000, state-level medical expenses attributable to obesity topped $75 billion.  Across the country, state obesity rates range from a high of 32.8% in Mississippi to a low of 18.5% in Colorado.  The epidemic of obesity is contributing to our costly and inefficient health care system, adding to state budget deficits.

Even as Congress debates increased funding for the federal food stamps program and nutrition aid, this Dispatch will outline the steps states are taking on a wide array of policies that impact working families in urban centers and on rural farms, from food safety and regulation to access to local foods to improving health and nutrition in our communities.

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Food Safety and Regulation

In looking at food policy and safety, one of the major means of providing safe consumables is by ensuring that poultry and livestock are grown in safe conditions and not on factory farms.

Failure of Federal Inspections:  During the past eight years, federal food inspection and regulation has largely been dormant, with routine outbreaks in ground meat, and even in unlikely foods including peanuts and tomatoes.  It is no surprise that food poisoning seems to be on the rise, as a report by the Subcommittee on Science and Technology, FDA Science and Mission at Risk, makes the alarming admission that the "FDA does not have the capacity to ensure the safety of food for the nation":

During the past 35 years, the decrease growth of imported products in FDA funding for inspection of our food supply has forced the FDA to impose a 78 percent reduction in food inspections, at a time when the  food industry has been rapidly expanding and food importation has exponentially increased.  FDA estimates that, at most, it inspects food manufacturers once every 10 years, and cosmetic manufacturers even less frequently. The Agency conducts no inspections of retail food establishments or of food-producing farms.

Between the FDA's limited capacity, and the Center for Disease Control's findings that the prevention of food-borne illness in the US has stalled, there is some renewed hope with an increase in the FDA budget for 2009.  The Food Safety Modernization Act (HR 2749), which has passed the House, would mandate an increased frequency of FDA inspections, give the agency mandatory recall authority, permit inspectors increased access to record-keeping, and calls for a registration fee to help pay for the new program.

State Action on Food Regulation:  In the meantime, states have been taking the lead on self-policing and inspections to provide for the safety of their residents.  Food safety can be enhanced by various methods including:

  • Regulating Factory Farms:  2008 AZ S.B. 1373 gives the department of agriculture sole authority over poultry husbandry; 2008 CO S.B. 201 requires that veal calves and breeding pigs be given enough room to stand up, lie down and turn around; 2005 PA H.B. 1646 (Act 38) is aimed at helping farmers and communities avoid protracted litigation over large-scale "factory farms" by setting standards and allowing the attorney general to review disputes over local farming ordinances.
  • State Regulation of Food Safety:  This year, following a salmonella outbreak in peanuts that was ascribed to a Georgia producer, state legislators hurried to pass a first in the nation law that requires food manufacturers (with the exception of meat, poultry, and other manufacturers under the jurisdiction of the the FDA) to report internal tests that find tainted products within 24 hours.  The bill, GA SB 80, also sets up food safety plans and allows the Commissioner access to facilities at any time.  Colorado also enacted H 117 that gives the Commissioner increased investigatory authority over meat processing plants and establishes more stringent standards for safe handling of meat.  OR S 188 was enacted and authorizes the Department of Agriculture to impose civil penalties for violations of various food safety laws or related administrative rules.
  • Preventing the Use of Growth Hormones and Non-necessary Antibiotics:  In a win for food safety advocates and family farmers, former Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius vetoed a bill which would have made it harder for dairy farmers who do not use rBGH to label their milk as being rBGH-free. Additionally, California SB 416 was introduced and would require state and local governments to favor purchasing meat and poultry produced without the common practice of giving antibiotics to healthy animals, which decreases the efficacy of antibiotics in humans.
  • Mandating Inspections: 2008 VA SB 272 requires most foods sold in the Commonwealth to undergo inspection while ME H 709 allows a poultry producer to sell uninspected poultry at the farm, at farmers' markets and to restaurants under specified circumstances; establishes labeling requirements and requires identification of uninspected products on restaurant menus; and provides that an employee of the Department of Health and Human Services is authorized to enter a restaurant for purposes of inspection.  Indiana H 1524 establishes the State Egg Board to determine standards and regulate commerce and violations. 
  • Transparency and Licenses: MT HB 331 was enacted and revises laws relating to licensed food establishments for health purposes; provides for license fees and funding of local boards of health to fund food establishment health inspections.  Washington, DC B 131 allows for transparency in restaurant food inspection ratings.  Proposed CA SB 602 requires food facilities to have an owner or employee who has passed a food safety certification examination and requires a food handler to obtain and maintain a food handler card.
  • Food Recalls: CA SB 550 would require a grocery store to ensure that when it is notified that a product is subject to a recall and a recalled product is scanned, the store's point-of-sale system will prevent the sale and notify the employee who will tell the consumer that the purchased item is subject to recall. SC H 3524 would require a grocery store to contact customers who purchased recalled foods within 30 days of the recall.

Reining in Factory Farms:  Many forms of factory farming create a disparate environmental and economic impact on communities, with thousands of livestock crammed into small spaces and unsustainable practices.

  • Large scale farms are often unable to process the large amounts of manure generated by their livestock, with the spillover sometimes running into local water, causing health problems for workers and neighbors.
  • Instead of sourcing their products locally and promoting the local economy, they often buy from large multinational corporations with few ties to the land.
  • Finally, in order to minimize costs, factory farms keep their livestock in cramped quarters and some provide hormone-enhanced feed, which can have negative impacts once consumed by humans.  The European Union found in a 1999 report that residues in meat from injected animals could affect the hormonal balance of humans.

A broad coalition has been challenging the practices at factory farms, from locavores to low-wage worker advocates and populists, and state level initatives have been successful at reining in factory farms. In 1998, Colorado voters succeeded in passing Amendment 14, which placed stricter regulations on hog factory farms and mandated better waste control.

Deceptive "Leafy Greens" Reforms:  In 2006, in response to an e.coli outbreak in spinach, the leafy greens industry pushed through a "leafy greens" marketing bill in an attempt to clean up its image.  The California marketing agreement board developed voluntary standards which were most suited to large factory farms and not to family farmers who were trying to preserve wildlife, protect water quality, and farm organically.  Now, the industry is sponsoring a nationwide leafy greens marketing agreement that would be implemented by the USDA through memorandums of agreement with states.  However, these changes are superficial and progressives should demand actual reforms including better working conditions for farm workers and increased regulation and inspection of produce.

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Access to Local Foods

State policy is increasingly working to help communities buy locally and sustainably by encouraging farmers' markets, increasing the numbers of groceries in under-served areas, and requiring localities, states, and schools to buy locally.  States and localities have facilitiated access to local foods for seniors and low-income residents by adopting bills that would allow food stamps to be used at farmers markets and linking existing farmers markets to electronic benefits transfer systems; enacting farm to school policies that allow schoolchildren to learn about and eat healthier food from a young age; and by changing zoning to facilitate more groceries in dense urban areas lacking reliable and quality access to fresh produce, as well as changing tax requirements on farmers' markets.

Creating Food Policy Councils:  At least 21 states have taken a proactive stance by setting up food policy councils that bring together a broad array of public and private stakeholders to investigate every stage of the food process from seed to table.  Food policy councils have implemented policies to help both consumers and producers of food, including:

  • Food Stamp Eligibility Changes:  Development of a simplified application for food stamp benefits and changes in the motor vehicle requirement for food stamp eligibility;
  • Expanding Consumption of Locally Grown Food:  Implementation of EBT (Electronic Benefits Transfer) equipment at farmers' markets, procurement rule changes allowing correctional facilities to purchase locally grown food, and implementation of "Farm to School" and "Farm to Cafeteria" programs.
  • Helping Local Producers:  Creation of new forms of insurance for small producers, "Agricultural Inventories" of city-owned property to identify city-owned land which may be available for community gardens or other agricultural uses, and identification of economic opportunities created by direct marketing and local purchasing to support new and beginning farmers.

Bills this year to coordinate food policy at the state level include: MD H 1158 to create the Maryland Food and Hunger Policy Council within the Dept of Agriculture, MA H 718 to create a food policy council within the Governor's Office; and VT H 231 to create a farm to plate corporation to coordinate and provide support to all levels of the food system.  Oklahoma even has the Mvskoke Food Sovereignty Initiative to work with tribal and inter-tribal food policy councils and alternative policy councils to better represent small growers instead of the state's agribusiness council.

Financing Fresh Food:  Pennsylvania's Fresh Food Financing Initiative has been successful in addressing urban "food deserts" by opening 70 new grocery stores, and is a model for other states, including New York and Illinois which both have $10 million programs to finance the construction of new markets.

Having access to fresh and healthy foods is not simply about opening up or improving existing markets -- either traditional groceries or green markets -- but also about educating communities, particularly in underserved areas where poor residents have few options in terms of buying groceries, and the options that exist are 49% more expensive than in other areas.  This type of food "redlining" in urban food deserts makes it difficult for families to buy healthy food at affordable prices.

Encouraging "Buy Local" Programs:  State laws to encourage public agencies and schools to purchase more local produce helps to strengthen, and expand local farm and food economies throughout the state. A model bill for sourcing locally is the (30 ILCS 595/) Local Food, Farms and Jobs Act that Illinois Gov. Quinn signed earlier this year to require that 20% of food bought by agencies is sourced locally where possible.  This year, Georgia also enacted GA  SB 44  that requires schools to source locally for amounts under $100,000, and Montana encourages schools and colleges to buy locally through SB 328.

Food Stamps, WIC and Farmers Markets:  Part of the conversation around access to healthy foods has been about providing means for low income communities to afford local, organic produce.  Through the Farmers Market Nutrition Program (FMNP), 38 states and the District of Columbia allow lower-income women with children to use Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) at farmers markets.  Several states have instituted provisions where food stamps and electronic benefit transfers (EBTs) can be used at the local farmer's market.

This year, Indiana enacted H 1535 while MA S 393 and CA AB 537 were introduced to ease use of EBTs. Vermont's  H 192 even provides that a portion of American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds given to the Department for Children and Families for 3SquaresVT for the purpose of helping state farmers' markets cover the costs of electronic benefit machines; creates a milk and meat pilot program for purchasing local milk and meat for school meals; and provides technical assistance to schools to help maximize the use of local fruits and vegetables.

However, the FMNP program is not as extensive as the WIC program, which serves 3.5 times as many people and also provides greater amounts of benefits (the typical FMNP allocation is $20 or $30 per year versus $72-$120 annually for WIC, as detailed in a 2009 report by the Community Food Security Coalition.) Thus from 2009-2010, fifteen states are piloting or implementing changes to allow farms to receive WIC vouchers directly to increase access to locally grown foods for needy communities.

2009 Action on Farmers Markets Included:

  • Virginia H 1331 was enacted and will develop a farmers market system
  • NY S 1676 was introduced and vetoed due to budget constraints.  It would have defined green markets as the equivalent of farmers' markets, provided grants for urban green markets and established a regionally based urban green market facilities construction program under the urban development corporation.
  • AR S 442 would remove taxes on food sold at farmers market.
  • Wyoming enacted HB 16 to broaden the range of foods that are allowed to be sold at farmers markets.
  • Montana enacted HB 290, which raised the small farmers exemption on needing a license to sell at farmers markets and HB 478 reduced required fees on small farmers who sell plants at farmers markets and created a sliding scale of fines.
  • IN H 1309 defines farmer's markets and roadside stands.

Other bills introduced included bills to allow use of food stamps at farmers markets (ME H 251, MO H 1080, and TX S 1088.)  Texas also introduced a bill allowing a farmers market nutrition program for seniors: TX H 482.  

Using Tobacco Settlement Funds:  One of the more innovative policies that state governments have implemented has been to use part of the anti-tobacco settlement monies to fund more farming initiatives and to keep former tobacco farmers in agriculture by providing assistance for them to produce new crops.  These innovative proposals increase farm income and stimulate markets for locally grown agricultural products.  Kentucky, Ohio, Tennessee, North Carolina and Maryland are amongst the states that have provided grants to former tobacco farmers who are now producing eggs, wine, fish, and pork.

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Improving Health and Nutrition

With the rise in the consumption of  fast food and the increase of portion sizes, Americans are growing increasingly overweight, with 67% of adult Americans considered overweight or obese.  And the trend only seems to be picking up pace - a June 2009 study found that adult obesity rates rose in 23 states this year, with no decrease in any state.  According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, Americans spend $147 billion a year on medical expenses related to obesity, half of which is paid by Medicaid and Medicare. 

Disturbingly, it is possible that for the first time in 200 years, the current generation of kids in America may have shorter lifespans than their parents, according to a 2005 report in the New England Journal of Medicine.  In response, cities and states have designed programs to provide nutritious foods in schools alongside nutrition education.

Farm to School:  Farm to school bills address the persistent problem of school cafeterias serving quick and easy foods that are not always nutritious or delicious.  Because nutrition education starts at very early stages of a child's life, states and school districts are increasingly trying to foster good eating habits through purchasing locally grown produce for use in school cafeterias.  Farm to school programs allow children to eat the freshest, highest-quality food available.  These programs deliver food that not only nourish children immediately, but also increases knowledge that enhances their educational experience and cultivates long-term healthy eating habits. The programs are a win-win for kids, farmers, communities, educators, parents, and the environment.  Part of the difficulty is the rigorous requirements of what can be served in the cafeteria and the need to be able to cook cost-effectively for a wide audience, but another difficulty is the federal reimbursement for school meals -- $2.57 for a free lunch, $2.17 for a reduced-price lunch and 24 cents for a paid lunch -- an issue that celebrity chefs like Alice Waters are trying to address.  Currently 24 states have farm-to-school policies.

Model bill 2005 CA SB 281 establishes the Fresh Start Pilot Program to ensure that schools provide non-fried fruits and vegetables to schoolkids, and encourages school districts to buy Californian-grown produce when possible. Additionally, urban school gardens allow children to learn about agriculture directly. States are also working to incorporate agricultural education into the classroom, with NH H 48 as just one example.

Food Deserts in Local Communities:  A study by the Boston Consulting Group found that prices at corner stores in inner city neighborhoods may charge 49% more than supermarkets, while providing fewer fresh foods.  Some states have had success with opening new markets or improving what is offered in small corner or convenience stores in underserved areas, which also revitalizes local economies.

  • Philadelphia launched a $10 million initiative to open new supermarkets in underserved communities that not only improved the quality of foods that area residents could choose from but also provided new jobs to local residents.
  • OR S 908 authorizes cities and counties to request that the state Department of Agriculture designate a specified number of nutrition improvement zones in urban and rural areas; provides incentives for retail grocery stores to locate in nutrition improvement zones and for food stamp recipients to go to participating grocery stores; and appropriates money to establish nutrition improvement zones and participating grocery stores within zones.

Key changes that states can implement to bring healthier foods to underserved communities include providing training and assistance to open new groceries or improving existing groceries, sharing information on the local population to convince supermarkets that building in needy communities is profitable, reclaiming brownfields or abandoned properties and subsidizing the costs of adding new products.  Other initiatives include a curb on junk-food marketing schemes in schools, creating standards for nutritional quality of food and beverages available on school grounds, and establishing school wellness programs to promote nutrition and physical activity.

Restaurant Food Labeling Laws:  Just as we have come to rely on the nutritional information listed on the packaging of store-bought foods, listing calories on menus can help patrons size up the nutritional content of restaurant foods and make healthier choices.  This year, Maine lawmakers enacted LD1259 to require chain restaurants with 20 or more locations and at least one in Maine to post calories on menus, menu-boards, and drive-throughs.  New York, San Francisco and Washington's King County, which includes Seattle, have also passed menu-listing laws.

Banning Dangerous Chemicals and Food Additives from the Food SupplySeveral cities, including New York City, have banned partially hydrogenated oils, or trans fats, from food preparation because of their role in significantly increasing consumers' risk of heart disease.  Trans fats are used in numerous prepared and packaged foods like French fries, margarine, crackers, and doughnuts.  A 2008 Zogby poll found that more than 7 of 10 New York voters want a statewide ban on partially hydrogenated oils, which are the only source of trans-fats. 

Debates on Taxing Junk Food:  A number of states are debating whether to combat rising budget deficits and rising obesity rates by taxing soft drinks and other foods or beverages lacking any nutritional value.  The Center for Science in the Public Interest calls soda "liquid candy, providing nothing of positive benefit to the diet, just empty calories."  Just as cigarette taxes have cut smoking rates while raising revenue for state public health initiatives, taxes on soda could have a similar effect.  Nationally, a tax of 12 cents per 12 ounces of soda would raise $16 billion annually and cut consumption by 13%, helping to slow the obesity and diabetes epidemics.  The Center has created a Liquid Candy Tax Calculator to demonstrate how much money states and the federal government could raise from soda taxes.  25 states have taxes on soda and snack foods, but these are reportedly small. 

A major drawback to these types of taxes is they are regressive, disproportionately impacting low-income consumers.  Therefore, if lawmakers choose this track, revenue raised should be reserved for health care reform and public health initiatives that specifically address the needs of low-income communities, such as eliminating the food deserts discussed earlier and improving health education in schools.

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Conclusion

States are vigorously addressing food security and access with innovative policies that provide residents safe and healthy options  through policy coordination, increased regulation, and increased information about the foods that they eat.  By paying increased attention to food safety and buying locally, states can ensure that residents have improved health and promote local economies.

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