Healthy foods get funding boost

Healthy foods get funding boost

Farm bill invests 55% more in programs to boost competitiveness of specialty crop producers.

THE days of farm bill money being directed only to mainstream commodities are no longer the norm.

Over the last decade, funding for specialty crops and healthy foods has dramatically increased, and the 2014 farm bill solidified the role the government plays in helping encourage healthy eating choices.

The 2014 farm bill includes an overall 55% increase in investment over 2008 farm bill funding levels in critical specialty crop initiatives and programs, including the State Block Grant Program, Specialty Research Initiative, a new fruit and vegetable incentive grant program for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) recipients, the pest and disease prevention program, the Market Access Program and the Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Program (Table).

Sales of specialty crops total nearly $65 billion per year, and organics are the fastest-growing segment of agriculture, making them a critical part of the U.S. economy and an important job creator.

Dennis Nuxoll, vice president of government affairs for Western Growers, explained that fruit and vegetable growers seeing an increasing share of farm bill spending is reflective of the societal trend toward healthy eating. Add to that a "very vocal champion" in Senate Agriculture Committee chair Debbie Stabenow (D., Mich.), and Nuxoll said the industry now has an "appropriate place at the table when it comes to farm bill spending."

Robert Guenther, senior vice president for public policy at United Fresh, said despite the long process in getting the farm bill passed, farm bill programs for fruits and vegetables were maintained or strengthened.

"This is a clear sign that policy-makers recognize the importance of our industry to the nutritional well-being of all Americans and to the overall U.S. economy," Guenther said. "We'll continue to work with lawmakers to ensure that America's fruit and vegetable providers operate under government policies that allow them to be as innovative as they can be to enhance their competitiveness and ability to meet America's nutritional needs."

 

Healthy eating focus

The farm bill, hearings on which Congress started holding in 2010, provides nearly $4 billion in funding for programs that benefit specialty crop production, including fresh produce.

Funding increases access to and the affordability of healthy food options.

Many people in both urban and rural low-income communities lack reasonable access to nutritious and afford­able food.

The bill authorizes the Healthy Food Financing Initiative to administer loans and grants to improve access to healthy foods in these "food deserts." The bill also expands access to healthy options with initiatives that give low-income individuals incentives for purchasing fresh fruits and vegetables and by authorizing community-supported agricultural operations to accept SNAP payments.

Healthy snack programs for children were also expanded. The bill continues the successful Fresh Fruit & Vegetables Program, which provides fresh fruits and vegetables to elementary school children throughout the school day in school districts with a high proportion of low-income students.

Nuxoll explained that the snacks are important not only from a nutritional standpoint but also for educating children about healthy eating, diets and exposure to healthy products.

"Children learn about what a healthy diet looks like, which is not only important for an immediate concern of childhood obesity but also is helpful to teach children, over time, about healthy eating because children are tomorrow's consumers," he said.

The bill continues the U.S. Department of Defense's Fresh Program, which distributes fruits and vegetables to schools and service institutions, and it allows the Agricultural Marketing Service to continue conducting pilot programs that let states source locally grown produce. It opens up grant funding to gleaners, improving access to healthy foods for underserved populations.

The bill strengthens support for farmers markets and expands authority to support innovative local food enterprises like food hubs, as well as local food projects like urban greenhouses, community gardens and community-based nutrition education for low-income families that help address community food security and support local economies.

It requires the U.S. Department of Agriculture to develop a system to more accurately value local and regional foods and to incorporate that system into its loan programs in order to improve access to credit for local and regional producers.

 

Research

Nuxoll said some of the biggest challenges produce farmers face are pests and diseases. The farm bill provides targeted funds to help reverse or mitigate damage. He explained that the federal dollars are especially important since a lot of state budgets have been cut.

Research and development funding offers short-, medium- and long-term research to study the best food safety techniques available and identify how they could be put into practice, subsequently educating producers on best management techniques, Nuxoll said.

The new farm bill strengthens the Specialty Crop Research Initiative to continue key research projects for fruits, vegetables and other specialty crops that include plant breeding, technology innovation and production efficiency.

Of note, the bill also guarantees $125 million in citrus disease research funding over the next five years and authorizes an additional $125 million in discretionary funding designated to combat citrus disease.

Congress created a new competitive grant program, the Citrus Disease Research & Extension Initiative, that is designated to combat citrus greening, which threatens to wipe out the entire citrus industry.

The initiative dedicates $25 million in annual funding for the grant program and authorizes an additional $25 million in annual discretionary spending over the next five years.

Rep. Tom Rooney (R., Fla.) noted that as a member of the House appropriations subcommittee on agriculture, he will fight to ensure that the program receives the full $50 million each year.

 

Expanded crop insurance

As consumer demand for fresh fruits and vegetables increases, so do production risks for the nation's farmers as they grow these crops.

Nuxoll said the farm bill attempts to make crop insurance more user friendly for the specialty crop community and expands product offerings.

Beginning in 2014, crop insurance will be available as a pilot insurance program for cucumbers in Delaware, Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Michigan, North Carolina and Texas. Coverage will also be available for tart cherries in Michigan, New York, Utah, Washington and Wisconsin.

Brandon Willis, Risk Management Agency (RMA) administrator, explained that a pilot program is taking input from growers, processors and crop experts to gather background information and research.

"For tart cherries, huge losses in Michigan in 2012 due to frost were a reminder of the need for a modern safety net for those producers," Willis said in a Feb. 10 blog post. "As a result, RMA worked to develop a plan to meet the needs of tart cherry producers, and the pilot was approved by the Federal Crop Insurance Board in 2013."

 

Funding allocation for specialty crops, million $

 

Current funding

Funding levels

 

levels under

at end of

Program

2008 farm bill

2014 farm bill

MAP (trade)

200

200

TASC (trade)

9

9

FFVP (healthy eating program)

150

150

SCBG (block grant)

55

85

SCRI (research)

0

80

Value-added

15

63

Pests/disease

50

75

SNAP incentives (healthy eating)

20

100

FMPP (healthy eating/farmers markets)

10

30

Total (per year)

509

792

Source: Western Growers.

 

Volume:86 Issue:07

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