Follow Up: October Florida Food Forum
The National Farm Bill: What it Means to Florida’s Food System
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On October 30th, the Florida Food Forum on the topic of The National Farm Bill: What it Means to Florida’s Food System was led by guest presenter Mikhail Scott, Strategic Partnerships Coordinator with the Florida Department of Agriculture – Division of Food, Nutrition and Wellness.
Mikhail began his presentation by introducing the Florida Department of Agriculture and the programs that the Division of Food, Nutrition and Wellness oversee.
“Within the Division of Food, Nutrition and Wellness, we actually conduct, supervise, and administer Child Nutrition Programs, Commodity Food Distribution Programs, and also many other assistance and benefits programs, while also providing outreach, guidance, training and a lot of other resources to students, parents, teachers and the like. So, what we are doing here is really trying to be impactful and touch as many communities as possible with the work we do in the department.”
Mikhail noted four major programs managed by the division that play an important role in Florida's local food system: The National School Lunch Program, the Summer Food Service Program or Summer BreakSpot, the Emergency Food Program known as The Emergency Food Assistance Program or (TEFAP), and the Commodity Supplemental Food Program.
The National School Lunch Program, which is a federally assisted meal program, is operated in both public and nonprofit schools across the state of Florida, as well as in residential child care institutions. The program provides nutritious meals to students, which often results in enhanced academic performance from students.
“Another great part about the program is that it improves students’ understanding and generally their intake of fruits and vegetables, which we know is good for just general overall health and wellness,” he added.
As many students across Florida depend on these meals as their sole source of food during the weekdays, Mikhail notes the importance of this program.
“Especially after Covid-19 and seeing what happened with school closures, I think it is more evident than ever before, how important programs like the National School Lunch Program are in many children's lives across the state.”
The Summer Food Service Program or Summer BreakSpot, offers nutritious meals at no cost to children 18 years and under throughout the entire state during the summer months of the year, helping kids who might otherwise miss out on meals.
“We operate this program generally in schools and nonprofit organizations. Oftentimes, we might collaborate with government entities, so we will be at parks and local community centers, and we really try to make sure that we are finding and identifying those local communities where those gaps are.”
Notably, participating organizations in this program are eligible for reimbursements on money that they spend on the program.
“We know that is going to be very important for some of these low-income communities where folks might not have the resources or might not have the funding to actually support some of these programs. So, they actually have the opportunity to have that money reinvested or redirected back to their organization,” Mikhail emphasized.
The next program, the Emergency Food Assistance Program known as TEFAP in Florida, is a UDSA program that the division oversees, which allows for the distribution of high-quality nutritious foods to low-income households.
“When we are talking about low-income households, we are talking about families that might be anywhere from 130% to 180% of the federal poverty level. And what we are able to do is we partner with regional food banks across the State of Florida who then work with local nonprofits, faith-based organizations, food pantries, soup kitchens, and the like, and we are able to distribute those foods to folks that are really in need for them,” explains Mikhail. “And obviously with the pandemic and the economic challenges that we have seen over the last few months with COVID, there has been a huge increase in the need for these types of resources. Some of our food bank partners are even telling us that their demand has gone up at some places, in some regions, over 100%. So, it's really important to understand that programs like the Emergency Food Assistance Program have a real significant impact on our local food systems and obviously in our communities of need.”
The final program discussed was the Commodity Supplemental Food Program, which focuses on individuals who are 60 years or older, and who are typically on a reduced or fixed income. This program provides monthly food distribution and information about how they can use the foods, as well as and ensuring that they are, “diet sensitive, low sodium and nutritious meals.”
From there, Mikhail moved on to a brief overview of the Farm Bill and its history.
“When we think about the history of the Farm Bill, it was actually originally created by Franklin Roosevelt during the Great Depression back in 1933. When this bill was created, it had a few very small objectives at that time, which were specifically focused more so towards the farmers and farming community” he explained. “What they were aiming to do was provide financial assistance to farmers who were struggling economically due to high crop supply and low prices.”
By raising the price of farm goods and controlling the actual food supply itself, farmers saw their economic income level and the actual amount of food supply that was in the country stabilize. Yet, the original Farm Bill in 1933, came at a very different time than now.
“Once we look at how the legislation was actually transitioned to today, we will see that it is actually a lot different and much larger than it was in 1933,” Mikhail said. “Right now, we are dealing with the recession and Covid-19, but we are talking about the Great Depression. The country had recently undergone something called the “Dust Bowl,” which was a several-year drought which struck the Southern and Great Plains region that exacerbated financial hardships for farmers and really created a bad food situation for our nation. In action, that legislation authorized the government to essentially pay these farmers not to grow too much food; and so, this would help to stabilize prices, lower the commodities that were actually on the market like corn, wheat, and rice, and when the supply of those goods went down, this really helped to bring the prices up for farmers.”
The shift in the Farm Bill over the years has been great. Today, the Farm Bill is classified as an “omnibus bill,” which packages many smaller pieces of legislation and smaller programs into one major bill. In the case of the Farm Bill, it has to be reauthorized every 5 years.
“In 2008, which was the most recently authorized farm bill, it cost $867 billion to authorize. That’s anywhere from about $100 to $150 plus billion annually of a price tag on that program. It really goes to show how much funding is going into this program to make sure that the food system is sustained.”
Although are numerous components of the Farm Bill at large, Mikhail spoke on what he believes are three components that are most impactful to the food system: the support for farmers, financial assistance for low-income consumers, and support for economic protections related to the agricultural industry.
Out of the funding that the Farm Bill provides, around 80% goes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP, which is essentially a safety net for low-income families that provides a monthly benefit for food purchases depending on factors such as on household income, family size, employment status, and other qualifications.
“That gives you an idea of the necessary need and the amount of benefits that are needed to actually support some of the folks that are in the country that might have as much or as much access to the same resources as others,” said Mikhail.
With the large-scale layoffs and economic struggle due to the COVID-19 pandemic, SNAP and other Coronavirus relief efforts like the CARES Act and Pandemic EBT, have been a life-saver for many. The authorization to use SNAP online was especially a big change for food access in Florida and in many states around the nation.
Although SNAP benefits are a large portion of the Farm Bill, farmers still receive support from two main components of the bill: farm subsidies and crop insurance.
“Essentially, farm subsidies are governmental incentives that are paid to agribusiness, to agricultural organizations, and to farming families, large and small, that supplement their income,” Mikhail explained. “Those farm subsidies however, have experienced a little bit of criticism over the years from certain people who might be in opposition. This could be in part because sometimes subsidies are only applied to specific commodities, some of which are not necessarily made for human consumption.”
Some examples of these crops are corn for ethanol fuel, wheat for feed for livestock, cotton and other commodities that aren’t consumed.
“So this has often led to some of these larger farms and larger farming entities, to get these subsidies over smaller family farms who either can't produce those commodities at the same amount or they just don't grow that type of food because they are growing specialty crops like fruits and vegetables, which, unfortunately, are not covered in the Farm Bill for any type of subsidy program.”
The second component for farmer protections is crop insurance.
“Essentially, it is an insurance policy that is subsidized by federal crop insurance programs,” said Mikhail, “Typically what will happen with that is the USDA Risk Management Agency will subsidize those insurance payments and those expenses, so they will take a portion of the company's administrative and operational expenses. They kind of share the underwriting gains and losses with the company.”
Mikhail emphasized that both of these components are extremely important for our food system to ensure that food is produced and goes to feeding our nation.
“If some of these policies weren't in place, we might have farmers reconsidering the amount of volume of crops that they actually want to grow, or farmers reconsidering that farming operation altogether. It’s important to remember that although a lot of that money is going to consumers that are really needing help, our farmers are also a very vulnerable population these days as it relates to the agricultural industry, and it's important to have those protections in place for them as well.”
When it comes to the future of the Farm Bill, Mikhail was hopeful that as new legislation is developed, policymakers recognize the importance of protecting the environment and supporting conservation and environmental protections. As for what will actually end up in the bill, that remains to be seen.
“If anybody has followed or knows a lot about the Farm Bill, sometimes these negotiations go smoothly and other times they lag on and actually lapse and have to be amended and are not actually reauthorized. The current Farm Bill that I mentioned that was authorized in 2018, is going to be valid through 2023. So, we shouldn't expect any significant change to the policy until we get a little bit closer to that 2023 deadline.”
However, for those interested in advocating for change, Mikhail did have some advice.
"When it relates to larger agricultural policy or larger agricultural policy at large, it’s really easy for people to feel like they don’t have a voice or they don’t have a say in it. But, I want to encourage you all to look more into it, to better understand some of the nuances of this program and some of the nuances of this legislation, so that way you can understand if it affects the people you care about or if it affects different programs or initiatives that you care about, and then find ways to impact it on a local level.”
He added, “It's really important that you all continue to stay vigilant, continue to stay very active, understanding that your voice matters. And at this point, the best way for any of us to be advocates is starting in the voting booth...You can be in the driver's seat as well, if you just stand up and let your voice be heard.”
The presentation was followed by a rich question and answer session.
If you would like to contact Mikhail, send him an email at: Mikhail.Scott@FDACS.gov
Florida Department of Agriculture
Florida Department of Agriculture – Division of Food, Nutrition and Wellness
Farm Bill Grant Programs:
Bio: Mikhail A. Scott serves as the Strategic Partnerships Coordinator with the Florida Department of Agriculture – Division of Food, Nutrition and Wellness, under Commissioner Nikki Fried. He is responsible for organizing the Department’s efforts related to healthy food access and developing and managing statewide partnerships that support improved food security in Florida. Mikhail has experience in multiple levels of government, having served in both the US House of Representative and the Florida House of Representatives in legislative roles. He has gained an intimate understanding of state policy and built strong relationships with lawmakers and community leaders across the state. He earned his Bachelor of Science Degree in Public Relations from Florida Agricultural & Mechanical University (FAMU) in Tallahassee, where he currently resides.
Forum Host: Dell deChant is the Associate Chair of the Religious Studies Department at the University of South Florida and a member of the Board of Directors at the Florida Food Policy Council.
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Disclaimer: The views of the presenters do not represent the views of the Florida Food Policy Council. We are a forum for the offering and sharing of information and encourage diversity and communication within the food system.