Federal Policy Update: A Big Budget Win & More Opportunities to Champion Farm to School Through COVID-19
By Karen Spangler, Policy Director
On July 9, the House Appropriations Committee advanced its agricultural spending bill for Fiscal Year 2021. The package provides $12 million in funding for the USDA Farm to School Grant Program, a discretionary bump of $7 million above the annual mandatory $5 million level. In addition, it allocates discretionary funding for school kitchen equipment grants, outreach to socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers, the Local Agriculture Market Program (LAMP), and the Food Safety Outreach Program. This is a huge win for farm to school, and follows USDA’s recent announcement of a record 159 Farm to School Grant awards, made possible by the additional funding secured by our Congressional champions through appropriations bills for fiscal years 2018 and 2019. The Senate is currently working on its own set of FY2021 spending priorities, which it must negotiate with the House before passing a final spending bill for the President’s signature. After those steps, this increased funding for farm to school will be official.
Of course, farm to school activities can’t take place without the strong foundations of a viable local and regional food system, school meal programs and CACFP sites that actually have the resources to invest in farm to school, and educators who are supported in using farm to school activities with kids. We’re pleased to have such strong champions in House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture, including Chair Sanford Bishop (D-GA) and Ranking Member Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE), who help make possible this important additional support. But to make the most of this future funding, we must address the immediate needs of stakeholders across the farm to school community that need relief now, and that will need support to rebuild in the years to come.
That’s why National Farm to School Network was pleased to endorse the Local FARMS Act, introduced July 2 by Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ). This bill would waive the non-federal match required for USDA Farm to School Grants, covering 100% of project costs instead of the current 75%. As state and local budgets are squeezed in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, finding scarce matching funds will no longer be a barrier to accessing these grants. The Local FARMs Act would also support local food systems as producers rebuild, in particular directing 50% of bonus Specialty Crop Block Grants to purchase crops from women, veterans, and people of color.
School meal programs and early care and education providers who participate in CACFP have borne the responsibility of transforming their operations to continue feeding kids, even as reduced reimbursements from federal programs put programs in the red at a median level of $200,000. The HEROES Act, passed by the House in May, contains two provisions that would help somewhat, offering funding to cover some operational costs and make up for declining reimbursements. But as the uncertainty and burdens of the COVID-19 crisis drag on, more groups are looking to universal free meals in the 2020-2021 school year, including the School Nutrition Association, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and a new joint campaign, School Lunch for All, led by Urban School Food Alliance and Student Voice. Universal free meals would not only help ensure health and educational equity for low-income children, but would also allow school nutrition staff to focus on nourishing kids rather than worry about reimbursement paperwork in the midst of a crisis. National Farm to School Network is supportive of these calls for universal free meals, and urges that any new policies to emerge be rooted in racial equity and justice.
What’s next? Senate leaders face growing pressure to take action and pass more COVID relief legislation as the costs and uncertainty of this pandemic drag on. The good news is that there’s still time to shape what’s in this package - including many of the policy needs cited here in this post.
You can take action by:
1) Signing NFSN’s COVID-19 platform on federal policy response.
2) Urging your Senators to support the Local FARMS Act.
3) Telling your Senators that relief for school meal programs and CACFP sites must be part of any new legislation. (Need support reaching out to your Senator? Just let us know!)
4) Joining forces with groups pushing for immediate universal free school meals in the 2020-2021 school year.