By Lotta Chan, CFJC Research Associate
“Legislation has never been this sexy,” opened Sadie Sponsler of the San Diego Hunger Coalition at a Farm Bill 101 workshop last week, as over 50 San Diego residents poured in the room.
These residents came together to learn about the Farm Bill—an omnibus piece of legislation that covers everything from farm subsidies to SNAP (formerly known as food stamps) and biofuel research. In partnership with the San Diego Hunger Coalition and Food and Water Watch, CFJC co-hosted two public workshops on the Farm Bill last Wednesday in the City Heights neighborhood of San Diego, each with an attendance of about 50 people. These workshops were meant to inform the San Diego community about the history and current structure of the Farm Bill, discuss how it impacts the health of our communities and environment, and mobilize the community for action in fixing our broken food system.
Myself and Erin Middleton, who had just wrapped up coordinating a food justice conference attended by over 1000 people, had flown down for the day to assist in hosting these educational workshops. But by the end of the day, I had learned as much from the San Diego residents as they had from me.
San Diego has done extensive work on researching its food shed (the local food production, distribution, and consumption systems) and identifying some of its core problems in trying to create a just and sustainable food system. During the sessions, I learned that some of San Diegans’ top concerns are high food prices and insufficient support for healthy foods. The lack of financial and programmatic support is especially lacking when it comes to SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) and “specialty crop” (fruits and vegetables) programs. One participant framed the problem succinctly, saying he was tired of paying three times for food: first in subsidies for grain crops funded by taxpayer dollars, second in epidemic health problems such as obesity and diabetes, and third in environmental degradation. Even more surprising for me was to hear the residents speak up about the lack of slaughter houses, distribution centers, and processing units, making it hard to build a regional or local sustainable food system that can provide affordable, healthy food. While definitely a large urban center, the greater San Diego area has a large number of farms, and it was inspiring to hear from residents that they want to support their local food and farming system.
After this discussion on problems, we asked the workshop participants to turn these concerns into solutions. What would your ideal food system look like? How would the Farm Bill be written, by whom and in support of what? The responses we received were passionate about creating a sustainable food system. They envisioned more space for community voices in the Farm Bill, especially from California, the largest agricultural state in the country. They wanted to see increased support through the Farm Bill to shift SNAP programs so that they are focused less on promoting individual behavioral change and more on promoting structural change. For example, there are many legal, procedural, and cultural obstacles that prevent eligible residents from receiving SNAP benefits. I was surprised to learn that San Diego did not use $1.5 million in SNAP dollars it was given and had to return it to the federal level, but there are still thousands of people going hungry within the county.
After I had given an overview of the Farm Bill, Adam Scow of Food and Water Watch dove into a discussion about the current political situation of the bill. In a normal legislative process, the bill would have avenues for public comment over the course of approximately a year. However, the current situation with the Super Committee tasked to make $1.3 trillion in cuts to the federal budget means a small group of only four people from the Agriculture Committees is drafting a Farm Bill behind closed doors, without much public input, to submit to the Super Committee. This clear lack of a democratic process upset the attendees of the workshops, who, led by Sadie, decided to jump-start a campaign to kill the secret Farm Bill. In both sessions, residents made calls to their local and state representatives to urge them to reject the undemocratic process of the Agriculture Committees and allow more public voice.
I was inspired by the commitment of the workshop participants to being part of this “kill the secret Farm Bill” campaign. A two hour workshop is by no means sufficient enough to gather all the information needed to identify San Diegans’ policy priorities, but everyone was committed to staying connected, supporting each other, and most importantly, spreading the word to voice their concerns to their local officials and representatives. Since the workshop, staff from Senator Boxer, Senator Feinstein, and Representative Susan Davis’s office have called Sadie to set up an appointment to speak with her regarding the Farm Bill and San Diego’s concerns and solutions. We hope to build relationships with these officials to plug them in to Californians’ visions for a sustainable, just food system and create solutions together.
If you are interested in hosting a Farm Bill workshop together with CFJC, please contact Lotta at email@example.com. Together we can create a food system that works for everyone.
Ps: Check out this San Diego article on the workshop, including video, on the Speak City Heights website.