National News

Farmers fear farm bill will affect how you eat

Posted June 22, 2018 11:54 a.m. EDT

— Michael Pearl's family has been farming a piece of land outside Parkville for 126 years.

Pearl's great-grandfather bought the land back in 1892.

"He was a slave in Platte County, and you know, Platte County was a big slave market," Pearl said.

Pearl left a corporate marketing job about 10 years ago to come back to the farm. His efforts lie in organic, sustainable farming. He supplies produce to schools, farmers markets and local chefs.

"It's important to understand where you came from," Pearl said.

And, it's important to understand where you're going.

Along with his soy beans, Pearl says the interest in conservation, farm-to-table, and affordable food is growing, too.

Small farms like Pearl's are the backbone in the movement to make sure more people have access to healthy, fresh foods. A potential new farm bill has implications that could affect how everyone eats.

The House of Representatives just passed its version of the bill, which Congress renews every five years. The Senate may vote on its version next week.

Farmers and food conservation advocates are worried about the house version, which has sweeping cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and conservation efforts.

The current bill expires September 30, and if Congress can't come to an agreement, many programs will lose funding.

Pearl took advantage of a program funded through the farm bill, one that is already chronically underfunded.

"We'll use this thing to extend our crops on the front end and also on the back end," Pearl said, showing us a structure called a high-tunnel.

The high-tunnel is a gothic-style structure that will be fitted with plastic panels in the fall and ventilation flaps in the summer that will help Pearl extend his growing season through December.

The tunnel also helps reduce carbon emissions and harmful water run-off into the Missouri River.

Pearl got the grant to build the tunnel through EQIP, Environmental Quality Incentives Program. Two years ago in Kansas, the EQIP program turned down 76 percent of eligible applicants because of inadequate funding. If either version of the bill is passed, that would narrow the pool even more.

That means less food for less people.

"SNAP and other nutrition programs actually make up 80% of the funding in the Farm Bill, so nutrition is a big part of the Farm Bill. Not only does it help people who are low-income, it also helps food pantries," Beth Low-Smith said.

Low-Smith is the Vice President of Policy at KC Healthy Kids, a non-profit organization that helps families have access to healthy food and engages children in the concept of growing food at an early age.

Roughly $1.6 billion of SNAP benefits are filtered through Kansas and Missouri each year. The house version of the farm bill would enact stricter working requirements for people to access SNAP benefits.

"The farm bill has a huge impact on our eating and on our food system. Despite the name, it's about a lot more than just farms," Low-Smith said.

The idea is that if local farmers can grow longer, food insecurity issues can be addressed quicker.

KC Healthy Kids' Farm to School Academy is a program designed to help schools incorporate more locally-grown produce into kids' meals. Kids take trips to local farms and also have a hand growing produce at Splitlog Farm located in KCK.

"We have customers that use the SNAP program. They use it and the kids are coming and families are taking advantage of it. So what happens if they don't have the vouchers, so they quit spending with us, so that's 'X' percent of our income is gone," Pearl said.

Low-Smith says the threat to SNAP will put a much higher burden on pantries, which are already struggling to meet demand.

"We're in the business to feed people and that's what we're going to do as long as we can and as best we can," Pearl said.