Cory Booker, a New Jersey Democrat who’s one of the Senate Agriculture Committee’s newest members, is jumping into a range of farm policy issues, including pushing for as much as $20 billion a year in new conservation spending to be part of an upcoming climate and infrastructure package.
Booker, one of three African-American senators, also told members of the North American Agricultural Journalists on Friday that he wants to bring back something like the Trump administration's Farmers to Families Food Box Program as a way of addressing nutrition problems in the inner city.
Booker said he will be working to include new provisions for minority farmers in the next farm bill. Booker is the lead sponsor of the Justice for Black Farmers Act, which would among other things authorize land grants of up to 160 acres to existing and aspiring African-American farmers.
Booker, who also has proposed legislation to stem consolidation in agriculture and to phase out concentrated animal feeding operations, said that the Justice Department should declare a moratorium on agribusiness mergers.
Booker’s most immediate priority is the climate and infrastructure package.
The White House included just $1 billion for conservation in its $2.7 trillion American Jobs Plan, but Booker said he is having “great conversations with the administration” about significantly increasing the conservation program funding.
“We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to take bold, ambitious action and fully invest in America's farmers and rural communities to work together to solve the greatest threat facing our planet,” Booker said.
Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-MIch., told the ag journalists earlier in the week that Biden's funding proposal was "woefully inadequate" and that she was working to increase the conservation funding.
Booker reintroduced legislation recently called the Climate Stewardship Act that calls for nearly doubling the Conservation Reserve Program to 40 million acres a year and increasing funding for both the Conservation Stewardship Program and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program to $7 billion a year.
The bill also would fund tree planting and expand the Rural Energy for America Program from $50 million to $$3 billion to subsidize renewable energy projects.
Booker’s idea of bringing back the Food Box program could put him at odds with the Biden administration.
The Trump administration created the program to deal with the supply chain disruptions and hunger crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, but Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack is shutting it down, citing inefficiencies.
Booker, who joined the Senate Ag Committee this year and chairs the subcommittee on nutrition, sees a permanent Food Box program as an effective way to deliver fresh fruits and vegetables to low-income people who often lack access to healthy food.
“We're looking for win-wins — wins for farmers, wins for consumers, and wins for nutrition and for lower healthcare costs,” he said.
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The food box program is a way “to create more markets, local markets, to produce the kind of fruits and vegetables that are so urgently needed by our population,” he said.
Booker supports calls for a White House conference on hunger and nutrition policy. He says it would bring together “public and private stakeholders to reimagine federal food and nutrition policy.”
The nutrition crisis among America’s poor “is sending generations of our elders to an early death and robbing our children of too much of their precious potential,” Booker said.
On the ag consolidation issue, Booker said the Biden administration has already been talking about about using its antitrust powers to address the tech and pharmaceutical sectors. “We need to target the ag industry and stop what's happening here as well,” he said.
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