A customer shops for nectarines at a farmers market in San Francisco, California. (Justin Sullivan | Getty Images)
As members of Congress return from their August recess today, discussions and debates around the 2023 farm bill are expected to ramp up as the Sept. 30 deadline to pass the sprawling omnibus approaches.
On the local level, the massive pFiece of legislation passed federally every five years dictates how everything from nutrition assistance programs to farm and crop subsidies are deployed in communities nationwide.
If the current farm bill expires without a new one passed, several programs to support local farmers and food economies could expire while others will revert to archaic 1933 laws. The impact this will have on West Virginia will likely not be as big as it will for other states, where farming makes up larger portions of the economy, as nutrition programs — the key concern for the Mountain State — are permanently authorized under the farm bill and can be extended with already-budgeted dollars.
Kent Leonhardt, the West Virginia Commissioner of Agriculture, said the sprawling scope of the farm bill legislation is part of what makes it so complicated but also crucial.
“Let’s face it — not every state is the same, and a one size fits all approach for the nation doesn’t always work,” Leonhardt said. “West Virginia[‘s] needs [are] different than Pennsylvania, than cash crop states, than other places altogether.”
This year, Leonhardt has several specifics he would like to see a farm bill tackle, including a fix to meat processing that would allow local processors who have their plants inspected by the West Virginia Department of Agriculture to sell the goods across state lines.
“If West Virginians can buy and eat that meat, why can’t people in Pennsylvania, in Ohio?” Leonhardt said. “It’s difficult to get plants set up in the panhandles because of those restrictions. There are rules, we’re inspected and meeting those standards, so why can’t we benefit from wider sales?”
Generally, Leonhardt would like to see several components of the farm bill become more flexible. Programs like SNAP Stretch — a statewide program that allows SNAP and EBT dollars to be used at participating farmers markets to increase access to fresh produce — should be expanded, he said, and barriers for sellers to participate should be lowered.
When there is a surplus of funds in grant programs or other programs authorized by the farm bill, Leonhardt wishes West Virginians had the opportunity to “be creative” with where that money goes.
“We should be able to use it in backpack programs for students, for school lunch programs,” Leonhardt said. “If we had more flexibility, we could be able to build in and retain a bunch of the support programs that were implemented through COVID-19 but are now done.”
Those pandemic-era programs include more money in SNAP benefits for families and, locally in West Virginia, a delay on the implementation of work requirements for able-bodied adults without dependents to access the benefits.
West Virginia a ‘massive stakeholder’ in nutrition programs
West Virginia holds some of the highest food insecurity rates in the nation, with nearly 12% of residents defined as “food insecure” by Feeding Hunger. About 1 in 7 children in the state face hunger daily. It’s estimated that West Virginia needs $116 million to close the hunger gap, a number that is likely to increase as the end of pandemic-era provisions takes roughly $36 million out of the pockets of 170,000 households in the state, according to the Center on Budget and Policy.
Because of this, when it comes to the farm bill, Josh Lohnes, director of the West Virginia University Food Justice Lab and a right-to-food advocate, said West Virginia is a “massive stakeholder” for the 15 programs that are implemented under the legislation’s nutrition title. Whenever debates start on authorizing the new farm bill, Lohnes said there are always a handful of legislators who want to see the nutrition title removed completely.
“Getting rid of that, however, would be a food economy disaster,” Lohnes warned. “It would be a disaster for the Walmarts, the Dollar Generals, the Krogers of the world that are redeeming a lot of SNAP dollars. It would be a disaster for schools here, where we have mostly free lunches for students. More than anything else, it would be a disservice to the food insecure in our state.”
Leonhardt, while acknowledging the importance of the nutrition title, said he believes it may be beneficial to cut some parts of the massive omnibus out so they could be updated more often than current law allows.
“Originally the food programs were only put into the farm bill to get votes so it would pass,” Leonhardt said. “There should maybe be a discussion on separating those out because I think we do need to have some adjustments on smaller portions of the bill more frequently than once every five years.”
Farm bill could position West Virginia for more success in the future of agriculture
Congress is set to reconvene from its August recess on Sept. 5, leaving the lawmakers just 25 days to agree on a new farm bill that will hold as law until 2028. Per statements from lawmakers, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. and Rep. GT Thompson, R-Pa., who chairs the House Agriculture Committee, it’s increasingly unlikely that a bill will be passed by the deadline.
“The committee is continuing to work toward a bipartisan bill that can be signed into law by the end of the calendar year,” wrote Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-MI, the chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, in a statement to Spectrum News earlier this week.
The last two farm bills were also passed late. If that’s the case this year, programs that are already funded — including SNAP — will continue to operate, but those that need the authorization of a new farm bill — like grant programs, subsidies and more — will be on hold until legislation is passed. It’s unclear what programs exactly in West Virginia will be affected by a delay.
Rep. Carol Miller, R-W.Va., said in a statement last week that she has submitted three priorities for the 2023 farm bill, including the meat processing changes outlined by Leonhardt and more flexibility and investment in programs like SNAP Stretch. In addition, Miller said she hopes to see a continuation of funding for watershed protection and flood prevention programs, which are growing needs in West Virginia.
Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., said in a statement that she “understands the importance and need” to act on the 2023 farm bill, and though she is not on the Senate Agriculture Committee, she’s been working with Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., to “emphasize the importance of West Virginia priorities. Capito’s statement did not expand on what those specific priorities are, but they are “based on many conversations” she has held with West Virginians across the state.
Lohnes, with the Food Justice Lab, said the farm bill could be an opportunity to position West Virginia for more success in the future of agriculture. The region is — compared to others — more resilient when it comes to the impacts of climate change, and an investment and acknowledgement in that now could set up necessary infrastructure that allows the state to thrive in the future.
“In the context of climate vulnerability, the potential of Appalachia as a food-producing region for other parts of the country is great. We really should have more of a stake on the production side of the bill,” Lohnes said. “In central Appalachia, we’re not that far from the mid-Atlantic, the northeast, the midwest. We could become a site of specialty crop production — fruits and vegetables — if we had the chance and the investment, but we’re not thought of as that kind of place.”
Lohnes expects to see climate change addressed throughout this year’s farm bill as President Joe Biden’s administration has done the same with other massive pieces of legislation during his time in office.
Food systems and crops generally have massive carbon outputs and it’s impossible to deny how that plays into the ongoing and growing climate crisis, Lohnes said. Eventually, something is going to have to change to offset those impacts, and West Virginia and Central Appalachia could be part of the solution if lawmakers prioritize them.
“We have the opportunity here to create that climate and thrive,” Lohnes said. “Unfortunately, I don’t think our delegates in the statehouse or in Congress are thinking about this debate, but it’s an important one.”
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