We continue the September edition of the “Advocating on the Road” series with this piece, examining how federal policy affects our food, our neighbors, and our communities.

By Mary Minette, director for environmental education and advocacy, ELCA Washington Office

This month, the “Advocating on the Road” blog series explored a program that combines support for farms and farming communities with efforts to reduce hunger and improve nutrition among low income families. The Farmers Market Nutrition Programs in Washington state are funded by state and federal dollars and represent a new approach to food policy — one that looks at our food systems as a whole, rather than as disparate pieces. These programs support not only those who grow food, but also those who eat food, and perhaps most importantly, these programs pay attention to the systems and communities that connect growers and consumers.

The Washington state Farmers Market Nutrition Programs reflect a new direction in federal farm policy that began with the 2008 Farm Bill with an effort to help more farmers markets process the electronic benefit transfer cards that states use to distribute nutrition benefits such as the Women, Infant, and Children nutrition (WIC) and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP — formerly known as food stamps). The 2008 Farm Bill coupled these electronic benefit transfer initiatives with efforts to encourage new farmers markets in underserved communities, where access to fresh food is limited. The 2008 Farm Bill set aside 10 percent of the funds allocated to the Farmers Market Promotion Program to support the use of electronic benefit transfers at farmers markets and community-supported agriculture enterprises. By 2011, 2,400 farmers markets nationwide were authorized to accept electronic benefit transfers, and that number continues to grow.

The expansion of farmers markets into new communities benefits more than low income families who receive food assistance. Farmers markets also benefit others in the community who now have increased access to fresh fruits and vegetables at their local farmers market, the farmers (who keep more of the consumer’s dollar by selling directly to those who eat what they grow), and the people who are hired to work in farmers markets and who work in businesses nearby that may see increased traffic on market days. In addition, there are the less easily measured benefits to the health of communities amid growing concerns among public health professionals about poor nutrition and obesity, particularly among our children and youth.

The 2008 Farm Bill that made this possible is due to expire in less than one week (on Sunday, September 30). Although the United States Senate passed a bill in early summer that would renew the Farmers Market Promotion Program — and with it the electronic benefit transfers program for WIC and SNAP recipients — leadership in the House of Representatives has so far been unwilling to allow a floor vote on a House farm bill. Absent a new farm bill, the House and Senate must vote to extend the current bill or many farm and food programs will expire — small, new and innovative programs, such as the Farmers Market programs, are particularly vulnerable to being cut and eliminated as lawmakers argue over declining pots of federal dollars and large programs, including SNAP and traditional farm supports, take up the lion’s share of the smaller amounts that remain. The House left for recess this past Friday without passing either a new farm bill or extending current legislation; they plan to return after the election for a lame duck session.

Also, last week the House of Representatives passed a six-month Continuing Resolution to fund the federal government until the end of March 2013, which failed to provide extended funding for a number of farm conservation programs. Through this exclusion, the House’s Continuing Resolution removed these farm conservation programs from the “baseline” of funding that will be available when Congress finally turns its attention to a new farm bill. This lower baseline means that if these conservation programs are to continue under a new bill, there will need to be cuts in other programs — perhaps including the Farmers Market Promotion Program and the electronic benefit transfers program.

We’ve heard this month how the policy written, voted upon, and signed into law in our state and national capitols deeply affects the lives of parents, children, seniors, and farmers. These policy initiatives, like the Farmers Market Nutrition Programs in Washington state, are more than line items of a budget or words in the pages of a mammoth bill. Strong policy can have a direct, positive impact on our lives and the lives of our neighbors — strong policy can help us build more vibrant and hunger-free communities.