WASHINGTON, Feb. 8, 2017 - As Congress prepares to write a new farm bill, most of the discussion among traditional farm groups has focused on finding more money to help milk producers and cotton growers and to shore up the Agriculture Risk Coverage program. But some Democrats are looking to shift more money into programs that help smaller farms and organic producers.

The lawmakers, led by Rep. Chellie Pingree, an organic farmer from Maine, are even pushing for a new title in the farm bill to address food waste. Pingree is expected to introduce by spring what she calls a “marker” bill that will lay out an array of proposals for promoting local and regional food production and organic agriculture.

“The public is really on our side now,” Pingree said at a recent meeting with farmers in her home state. “I can talk to someone who has never been on a farm, never done anything more than buy a quart of milk at the store, and they’ll say, ‘Why do we spend so much on corn subsidies? Why is the farm bill a giveaway to big farms?’ People understand this stuff now.”

Her goal now is to “figure out something for them to fight for. … It’s got to be something we can sell to the public,” she said.

Her bill is likely to include some “small but important “changes to enhance the Value-Added Producer Grants (VAPG), the Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program (FMLF) and to provide some new assistance to local and regional food production, said Ferd Hoefner, senior strategic adviser for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, which is working with Pingree and Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, on the proposals.

Pingree, Brown and NSAC had several successes in the 2014 farm bill. It earmarked $63 million to be spent over five years for the value-added grants. FMLF received $150 million over five years, a 300 percent increase. Funding was more than doubled to $57.5 million for the National Organic Certification Cost Share Program. An organic research initiative was given $100 million a year.

Pingree is no longer on the House Agriculture Committee, but she does serve on the Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee that writes USDA’s annual budget, and she is one of only a handful of House Democrats who have expertise and background in farm policy. And she has powerful allies in the Senate: The ranking Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee, Debbie Stabenow, shares many of her concerns, as do committee members Brown, New York Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand and others.

Republican chairmen of the Senate and House Agriculture committees have said relatively little about their goals for a new bill, but they are going to need some Democratic support to move a bill. In the House, Agriculture Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas, has to worry about his right flank, including members of the House Freedom Caucus, who would like to slash farm bill spending. Last spring Conaway held a hearing on food waste with Pingree as the lead witness.

The food industry has no obvious economic interest in reducing food waste. But public interest in and industry concern about the issue is growing. Three major trade groups, the Grocery Manufacturers Association, Food Marketing Institute and the National Restaurant Association, created the Food Waste Reduction Alliance to formulate and coordinate policy. The Obama administration set a goal of reducing national food waste by 50 percent by 2030.

A food waste title in the farm bill would likely be modest. An industry lobbyist said privately that the best bet to be included would be a consumer education program. GMA spokesman Brian Kennedy said the alliance was “working with agriculture committee staff to identify ways to overcome barriers to recycling food waste and donating more food.” 

Just getting a new title in a farm bill is significant, since it provides the platform for expanding the program in the future. According to some experts, one major contributor to food waste is consumer confusion over “sell by” and “use by” dates, which can vary by state. Getting a national standard into the farm bill is probably unlikely, in part because it would involve the jurisdiction of at least one other committee. But some industry officials say that a food waste title of some kind is still likely.

“There is an interest in seeing what a national standard might do and what it might look like,” said David Carlin, senior vice president of legislative affairs and economic policy for the International Dairy Foods Association. “Nobody underestimates how difficult that might be to push into a farm bill.”

But Carlin added, “Three or four years go you didn’t hear much about it in the farm bill context. Now you do.”

Meghan Stasz, senior director for sustainability for GMA, told the House Agriculture Committee at last spring’s hearing that date labeling confusion only accounted for a small percentage of household food waste. “There is no silver bullet solution for food waste. It needs to be tackled in a range of ways, and everyone has a role to play,” she said.