Bringing the Farm Bill Home with Innovative New Tools

      Posted On: January 17, 2012

By Liz Comiskey, FMC Membership and Volunteer Coordinator

I know what I value- local food, farmers, and communities; and with the Farm Bill poised to be a major topic in 2012, voting with my dollars isn’t enough.  The truth is, my experience is in managing farmers markets, and I knew very little about the Farm Bill.  Since joining the staff at FMC, one component of my job has been helping farmers market advocates learn about and engage in policy.  This meant that digging in to the Farm Bill and finding out what it means to me was in order.  Sorting through the information overload was actually more entertaining than I expected, though I still haven’t perused the actual 683 page document, which I could do here– maybe on a rainy day.

The best guide to which I referred when the Farm Bill almost got zipped through the Super Committee last autumn was actually not solely about the Farm Bill, but about understanding the basics of the federal policy-making process.  Published in 2007, before the last Farm Bill authorization, Community Food Security Coalition’s  Federal Policy Advocacy Handbook is worth checking out.  It provides a crash course in advocacy and I can guarantee that you will be seeing ‘call to actions’ take shape this year, including calling, writing, meeting with your legislators, writing op-eds, and taking opportunities to educate people in your community.

Fortunately, many of the resources emerging recently to educate consumers about the Farm Bill are visually exciting.  In December, Food + Tech Connect helped sponsored the Farm Bill Hackathon gathering in New York.  Prior to the event, individuals and organizations were invited to contribute data and problems to a group wiki.  Based on the wiki, designers, techies, and food policy folks were able to pick topics and design compelling images with available  data.

They also co-sponsored a webinar last week with Healthy Food Action and Center for a Livable Future at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health that gave an overview of the Farm Bill, and I highly recommend it if you are trying to familiarize yourself with the bill.

The Center for a Livable Future (CLF) recently released a Farm Bill Visualizer, an interactive treemapping application that allows users to see how the Farm Bill budget ties to health, local food, farmers markets, SNAP, etc. Programs are shown as boxes that are to scale based on their funding levels, so users can immediately see how programs compare in size.

In order to accurately compare budget areas over similar time periods, CLF combed through several documents to create this new extensive database that shows how funds are allocated to many of the programs we hear about every day.  It can be shown to and used by legislators and the community to help inspire people to get engaged.

The first thing that jumps out to any user of the Visualizer is the HUGE section that goes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), about two thirds of the Farm Bill and dwarfing most of the other programs.  You can select to take out the SNAP section to view the rest of the programs a little better (as I did, below).  This image shows the Farmers Market Promotion Program in a small yellow square at the bottom.


What seems like an insignificant percentage of the Farm Bill budget has a great impact on the farmers markets that are being cultivated in more than 7,000 communities.  When I look at that tiny little square, it’s easy to see how something that small could easily go away, should lawmakers feel that cutting many less-costly programs (like FMPP) to be easier than enacting read food policy reform.

Lastly, if you haven’t seen Ken Cook’s talk, Turning the Farm Bill into the Food Bill, from last year’s Tedx Manhattan: Changing the Way We Eat, you should make time to do it now!  His talk reminds us that we need to ASK for for support of the things we believe in.  All of the resources that are linked to here have about 50 more links within them.  So, enjoy digging in a little bit each day and share your favorites with your colleagues and friends.  During this big bright Farm Bill year, I think it’s vital to encourage our communities to be active in communicating what’s important to them about farmers markets.  Don’t we owe it to our most dedicated customers to share with them some of these compelling tools, and show them that, this year, there’s even more they can do for farmers markets than simply voting with their dollars?