UPDATE: Small Wins in Senate for Farmers Markets

      Posted On: June 6, 2018

by Ben Feldman, FMC Policy Specialist | ben@farmersmarketcoalition.org

With the Senate Appropriations Committee’s recent approval of the FY 2019 Agriculture Appropriations Bill, the farmers market industry received a piece of good news. Key federal farmers market programs such as the Farmers Market Promotion Program, the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive Program, and both the WIC and Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Programs are on target to be funded at the same levels as in recent years.  

While the appropriations process is not complete, the House Agriculture Appropriations Committee also included comparable funding for these programs. Considering that the Presidential Budget Proposal called for the complete elimination of funding for three of these four programs, this is another very encouraging sign from Congress, although it is possible that rancor around the farm bill could still derail funding (more on that later).

Thanks to all FMC members who participated in FMC advocacy efforts, particularly around FMPP and the WIC Farmer Market Nutrition Program – your phone calls and emails were key to making this happen!

How do these appropriations bills relate to the farm bill?

You can think of it like this: the farm bill is the 5 year plan and the appropriations process is the the yearly approval of funds to be spent as planned. In the 5 year plan (farm bill), some programs are given a set amount of money each year, which is known as mandatory funding. While Congress can change these levels each year as part of the appropriations process, they usually don’t.

Other programs in the farm bill are given the ability to receive funds (often up to a limit, not to exceed) in the appropriations process, but no specific dollar amount. This is called discretionary funding, and is much less secure because it requires Congress to choose to fund these programs each year.

Part of what made the recently voted-down 2018 House Farm Bill problematic for FMC and our members is that the Farmers Market Promotion Program was provided only discretionary funding, and not mandatory funding, making it likely – should the bill have passed – that the program would have received no funding through the next five year duration of the farm bill. In contrast, the 2014 Farm Bill provided the Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program with $30 million per year in mandatory funding.

As mentioned above, it is possible that the current difficulties in negotiating the farm bill would derail the positive efforts in the appropriations process. This could happen two ways. Should Congress fail to negotiate a new farm bill by the time the last one expires, programs without mandatory funding would go unfunded without special attention. Or, if Congress were to pass a farm bill like the recent draft in the house that cut funding to FMPP, that could force appropriators to make changes to their 2019 appropriations.

More good news from the appropriations process

In addition to the funding levels, the Senate and House Agriculture Appropriations also contain another small victory for the farmers market community. Tucked away in the report that accompanies the Senate bill is the following language:

The committee is concerned that there are unnecessary barriers and added costs for organizations that manage farmers markets in multiple locations. The Secretary shall permit such organizations to become a SNAP-authorized retailer at the level of the organization, provided that the organization notifies [Food and Nutrition Service] FNS of all market locations at which it will accept SNAP benefits. The SNAP-authorized organization will continue to bear legal responsibility for SNAP compliance at all locations it oversees, included exercising proper oversight of SNAP implementation at each participating market location.

And the House, this:

The Committee is aware that some farmers markets and farmers selling directly to consumers are interested in EBT equipment that operates for a variety of federal nutrition programs. FNS is encouraged to assist farmers markets and direct-selling farmers in obtaining EBT equipment that allows participation in both SNAP and WIC. Additionally, FNS is encouraged to allow non-profit organizations operating multiple farmers markets to use one EBT device at multiple approved market locations.

What is the significance of this language?

While this report language does not contain the force of law, it does represent the first comment by Congress on the longstanding USDA Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) policy that prevents farmers market operators from using SNAP processing equipment at more than one market. While the policy is intended to ensure integrity of the program, and provide FNS with accurate data about SNAP redemptions at individual markets, the unintended consequence has been to increase costs and limit the growth of SNAP at farmers markets.

The appropriations bills both still need to pass votes on the floors of their respective chambers, be reconciled with each other, and then signed by the president.

Here at FMC, we applaud Congress’ attention to this issue (with special thanks to Senator Patrick Leahy for his leadership!) and strong funding for these powerful farmers market programs, and express our appreciation to the Vermont Law School and the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition for their dedication to this issue. We also stand ready to work with FNS to develop solutions that meet with the language from Congress, while both preserving the integrity of the SNAP program and providing FNS with the appropriate data about market locations.