GROVE CITY, Ohio — Strain on supply chains and food assistance networks due to the pandemic and other global challenges continue to set the stage for discussions on the 2023 Farm Bill.
During the pandemic, millions of people lost jobs “through no fault of their own,” said Lisa Hamler-Fugitt, executive director of the Ohio Association of Foodbanks, at a meeting on the farm bill and food security Sept. 1, in Grove City, Ohio. Those job losses or income cuts sent many to lines at food pantries and food banks, or to apply for help through U.S. Department of Agriculture food assistance programs, like SNAP, and all this at a time when supply chains were also struggling to keep up in a fast-changing situation.
But even now, long after the height of the pandemic, supply chains and food security for many Americans remain vulnerable, with the lingering effects of the pandemic and other global challenges.
“It has to be front and center in everything that we do now and moving forward as it relates to the farm bill, but more importantly, our own economic and food security as a nation,” Hamler-Fugitt said. “We are extremely vulnerable right now.”
The pandemic has had a huge impact not just on agriculture and food processing, but on nutrition assistance and on organizations like food banks that have seen unprecedented demand in the last few years.
Some programs may also need to be updated to account for changes in how people buy their food, speakers said. For example, now a lot more people are ordering food online, but programs like SNAP aren’t necessarily built to allow that. And people who are on food assistance may also be likely to struggle with transportation, said Amy McCormick, corporate affairs manager for The Kroger Co., Columbus Division.
“At the end of the day, we have to figure out how a SNAP recipient can order their groceries and have it delivered,” McCormick said.
While the farm bill covers a lot of funding and programs for farmers, the vast majority of the spending in the bill goes towards nutrition programs, speakers pointed out. And between the lingering effects of the pandemic and higher food costs due to global trade issues, Hamler-Fugitt said, modernizing food assistance programs and making sure that organizations like food banks are able to get access to food will be important in this upcoming farm bill.
Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, told attendees at the conference one of the common things he’s heard from farmers is that they want to find new markets for their products. He said the next farm bill needs to build on work on local and regional food systems to help farmers market their products locally, and to help communities get better access to local food.
“This work on local food supply chains not only make it easier for food banks to get food and serve the communities you serve,” he said. “It comes back to … an idea that hard work should pay off for everyone.”
But Brandon Kern, senior director of state and national policy for the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation, also pointed out global trade’s connection to domestic food supply chains.
“I think we would all love to be able to grow food locally,” Kern said. “But there are limits.”
While Ohio can produce a wide range of foods, including corn, soybeans, wheat, livestock and fruits and vegetables, it’s better for some things than others. For example, Ohio Farm Bureau president Bill Patterson has an apple orchard on his fruit farm, but lost a lot of his apple crop to a late freeze last year.
The only way that works for Patterson is if he has other elements to his farm and business, like other crops and agritourism opportunities, Kern said. Those kinds of limits on some types of U.S. farming are why it’s also important for the U.S. to create good trade partnerships and import some of its food supply, he said.
“Trade is a tool,” Kern said. “It’s absolutely something that’s very important … to the food security issue.”
For now, speakers said, legislators are basically in a holding pattern until after the 2022 midterm elections. Those elections will help determine who is leading the House and Senate agriculture committees, and which party has the majority in each side of Congress.
The farm bill has historically had to be bipartisan to pass successfully. Carrie Calvert, vice president of agriculture and nutrition government relations for Feeding America, noted if the bill ends up being extremely partisan, a veto is likely even if it gets through Congress.
“Farm bills are passed down the middle of the aisle,” she said.
STAY INFORMED. SIGN UP!
Up-to-date agriculture news in your inbox!