At the “Salt of the Earth Encuentro” hosted by the Pan Valley Institute of the American Friends Service Committee (PVI-AFSC) of the Central Valley, participants visited five small organic farms run by immigrant farmers of diverse cultural backgrounds. At one of the farms, the visitors ate delicious strawberries grown by Saetern Cheng, a refugee from Southeast Asia. Like him, every farmer shared about their vital role as stewards of the land and food systems in the Central Valley and their impact on the United States.
According to the U.S. Geological Services, California’s Central Valley produces 25% of the nation’s food, including 40% of our fruits, vegetables and nuts, among other table foods. The Central Valley supplies about 8% of the U.S. agricultural output using less than 1% of the nation’s farmland. So how is the land that produces so much of the nation’s food also home to the second most food-insecure city—Fresno—in the United States? One way to understand this paradox is by examining the Farm Bill closely.
What is the Farm Bill?
Every five years, Congress reauthorizes the Farm Bill, a massive omnibus legislation that determines federal policy in food and agriculture. The last Farm Bill was authorized in 2018 and cost about $428 billion over five years. It expires this year, and the new one is due for reauthorization this September.
From farmers like Cheng to the child eating free school lunches in the city, we all have a stake in whether the food injustices we see in our communities will continue to be legislated into law. Because of the vital role food plays in our everyday lives, the Farm Bill impacts the quality of our environment, health and, for many of us, where we live and work.
In 1933, the first Farm Bill was created to address issues faced by farmers and, over time, grew to include resources to address widespread hunger, quality of the environment and availability of adequate infrastructure in rural communities.
The Farm Bill has 12 areas of focus, but the four major categories or titles are nutrition, crop insurance, commodities and conservation. Despite its broad scope, the bill does not cover issues such as food safety, farm and food worker rights and protections, irrigation water rights, some pesticide laws or food assistance programs such as the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program.
The bill ensures a considerable amount of funding makes it to the Central Valley through farm subsidies, food stamp benefits, crop insurance and more. But most subsidies go to corporate-controlled livestock and poultry operations and the production of grains (like corn and soybeans) to feed animals, not our community members.
Only about 4% of the federal subsidies reach farmers like Cheng, who grow fruits and vegetables, also known as “specialty crops.” There is a need for the Farm Bill to allocate more funding for specialty crops because they are vital to a healthy and nutritious diet. Also, these crops comprise the bulk of California’s farm production output.
Cheng’s organic farmland, located in Madera County, has changed owners, so he must find new land to lease and grow his fruits and vegetables. Organic farmland is hard to come by when pesticides and chemical fertilizers are widely used.
Land access for small-scale farmers is also an issue. Cheng said that the funding in the Farm Bill would not help with his relocation costs and land purchase. Even fewer resources are available to BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) farmers and producers due to proven discrimination and inequity in technical support and assistance for these farmers and producers.
Hunger in the Farm Bill?
While the Covid pandemic exacerbated hunger issues, the reality is that it further sheds light on the deep-seated problems in the U.S. food system and raised questions about the root causes of hunger in our society. According to a report from the Center for American Progress, nearly 24 million households in the United States often do not have enough food to eat during the week.
Many households turned to federal nutrition assistance programs—such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)—for the first time. Fresno’s numbers are alarming. Feeding America estimates that more than 100,000 people are food-insecure in Fresno. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Fresno County has 12 areas that are food deserts or “food apartheids,” as food justice advocates have defined them.
The nutrition title in the Farm Bill accounts for more than 80% of its funding allocation, helping low-income households afford food. Nutrition programs such as SNAP, or “food stamps,” tend to see a higher percentage of total population usage in rural communities than in urban communities.
Farmworkers—a significant percentage of the Fresno population—are among those who are often food-insecure and do not eat enough of the produce they help to grow and harvest. Every year, we increase subsidies to corporate agriculture to grow commodities that do not feed our neighbors, and in turn, every year, the United States gets hungrier.
In 2021, SNAP served as a lifeline, ensuring that 41 million low-income individuals—half of whom were children—had food on their table. Every increase in households turning to food assistance programs means that other policies legislating our farming and food system are failing to address hunger and must be reevaluated.
How does drastic climate change impact the Farm Bill?
During our visit to the farms, we saw firsthand the struggles that Cheng and other farmers face with the availability of freshwater. Sometimes, the region experiences extreme rainfall and snowcap melting. Still, in other seasons, there is little water, causing worry for small farmers who must not only deal with the climate situation but also compete with larger, water-consuming almond and pistachio farms.
While the Farm Bill does not legislate water quality for irrigation water rights, it impacts climate change. Industrial agricultural practices in the United States contribute to 11% of greenhouse gas emissions.
And while other industries have reduced emissions in recent years, emissions from agriculture continue to grow, leading to drought, extreme rainfall, snowcap melting and extreme heat, which farmers in the Central Valley must contend with. In 2021 alone, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimated that $12.5 billion in farmland was lost to droughts, wildfires and other climate-related disasters.
We are spending a disproportionate amount of money responding to climate disasters rather than mitigation through climate-friendly agricultural practices. The Farm Bill’s crop insurance title accounts for almost 9% of the bill, while the conservation title is only 6.8% of the bill—and of that, a significant percentage of funding continues to support agricultural practices that increase greenhouse gas emissions and reduce the quality of natural resources.
Climate change is a hunger multiplier as it jeopardizes the viability of farmland, harvests of staple crops and the food supply chain. Any policies to end hunger or regulate agriculture in the United States must align with our goals to address climate change.
We should be increasing funding to farmers—especially small-scale farms—to operate in ways that address climate change, such as regenerative agriculture (an indigenous farming practice that champions holistic and rehabilitative cultivation of resources) that protects air and soil quality.
How do you exercise your stake in the Farm Bill?
It does not matter what your place is in the food system. We need to call for policies to build a more economically, racially and ecologically just food system. Only then can we build economic and environmental justice while increasing the well-being of our neighborhoods and fostering food sovereignty.
Despite its bipartisan nature, the Farm Bill is rarely legislated on time, and the current state of play in Washington, D.C., will further delay its reauthorization until the end of the year. There is still time for members of Congress to hear from you.