The year 2020 has delivered enough heartbreak and uncertainty to last us for the rest of this new decade. COVID-19 coupled with recent civil unrest has shaken the bedrock of stability that many Americans take for granted. However, it should be noted that one piece of our foundation, while definitely strained at times, is holding firm - our food supply. But that’s not something to take for granted, either. Our federal lawmakers should act now to put provisions in place to keep our food supply stable through whatever unknowns may still lie ahead, and they should make sure that food producers of all sizes benefit from those provisions. True equity in the recovery from these setbacks has never been more important.
Our rural communities and communities of color never fully recovered from the recession of 2008-09. Yet the essential workers who have shown up every day to grow, harvest, package and transport our food; stock grocery shelves; fulfill online food delivery orders; and hand us our carry-out meals are part of these communities. As we move from COVID-19 response to economic recovery, let us focus on people first and engage stakeholders in building resilient regional economic development strategies. We cannot have a real, lasting recovery without confronting the challenges to shared prosperity that we faced long before COVID-19 – a precariousness that left workers and our economy so vulnerable to a shock like this pandemic. Serious work to combat inequality in health, wealth and education can help us create a stronger, more prosperous and more resilient future for all citizens.
This, of course, includes our farmworkers who are at the beginning of the food supply chain. Their needs must be addressed with regard to worker health and social safety net programs.
For example, a study this year by the Center for American Progress (chaired by former South Dakota U.S. Senator Tom Daschle) found that few rural businesses were created in the recovery from the last recession and that most of the recovery occurred in metro areas. The study recommends that the federal government work with local governments to initiate the creation of new businesses in rural and underserved America, and I couldn’t agree more. Our policymakers must recognize the value of this commitment in communities where drug use, job loss, and the absence of health care infrastructure cause an array of social problems that economic recovery can help remedy.
In agriculture, some level of recovery from COVID-19 setbacks is already underway, but it’s only the beginning. Assistance to agriculture is being provided through the CARES Act (and more proposed in the HEROES Act passed by the House). However, there have been challenges with access to those programs, especially for small-scale farmers supplying local restaurants, schools and farmers’ markets.
If our small farmers are driven out of business, there’s a risk that farmers’ markets will go out of business, as well, and that would deprive consumers of essential outlet for fresh and healthy foods. Those farmers must have access, as well as new and beginning farmers, urban farmers, and traditionally underserved farmers.
So now state departments of agriculture across the country are rallying behind the bipartisan Farming to Support States Act. It’s just the type of thing needed in California and elsewhere. It will augment federal assistance already received. But again, it must be accessible to ALL farmers and ranchers and especially assist rural areas and communities of color.
The Farming to Support States Act will assist in several important ways:
Keeping Workers & Food Safe: Enhanced access to PPE and COVID-19 testing for food and agriculture workers. Maintain appropriate staffing levels and critical operational functions for: food safety inspections, plant pest surveys, laboratory diagnoses, animal health inspections, etc.
Local & Regional Food Systems: Craft relief programs with the specific needs of small/micro agricultural producers in mind. Support market development efforts to expand sales opportunities for small producers. Ensure charitable food organizations have access to agricultural products to meet community need.
Expansion of Food Processing and Distribution: Investments in local processing infrastructure. Defraying transportation costs of commodities that must be re-routed to other processing/distribution facilities. Provide incentives to fund capital equipment investments, such as automated systems, or conversion of product lines for new marketing outlets (e.g., wholesale packaging to retail packaging).
Support for Rural Recovery Efforts: Collaborate with extension and other state agencies to provide economic assistance to farmers, ranchers, and rural communities. Develop tools to address farmer stress and expand farmer mental health services. Fund agriculture workforce development and job creation workshops.
Let’s make the Farming to Support States Act happen and make it accessible to all, so that it may provide a crucial extra measure of support for our food supply, and begin true economic recovery for communities still reeling for more than a decade.
Karen Ross has served as the Secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture since 2011. Before joining CDFA, Secretary Ross was chief of staff for U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. Secretary Ross grew up as a 4-H kid on a farm in western Nebraska. She and her husband, Barry, own 800 acres of the family farm where her younger brother, a fourth-generation farmer, grows no-till wheat and feed grains, incorporating cover crops and rotational grazing for beef production.