Why you should be concerned about the 2018 Farm Bill

by Frank Sherman

Why should people of faith and socially responsible investors pay attention to this year’s Farm Bill? What may appear to be an innocent funding bill turns out to have a major impact on things we care about.

The Farm Bill is renewed every five years. It was initially conceived during the Great Depression to provide fair prices for both consumers and farmers, as well as access to quality food and protection for natural resources. In 1965, funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP or food stamps) was combined with the support for commodity prices into a single omnibus bill because neither bill was able to pass on its own. Food stamps now make up almost 80% of the Farm Bills’ funding helping over 45 million Americans.

In a recent article in The New Republic  (The Farm Bill Is Everything That’s Wrong With Congress), Alex Shephard argues that the 2018 Farm Bill has little to do with farms or farmers. Most of the debate revolves instead around a host of other issues, like the deep cuts and “work requirements” for the food stamp program and draconian immigration reforms. The House version of the 2018 Farm Bill, which passed by a narrow margin in June, includes harmful and unnecessary barriers to access, like burdensome work requirements. On the other hand, the U.S. Senate version protects SNAP and includes pilot programs to connect SNAP recipients to work through effective employment and training programs. It is now up to a Conference Committee to work out the differences.

In 1965, funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP or food stamps) was combined with the support for commodity prices into a single omnibus bill because neither bill was able to pass on its own. With food stamps now helping over 45 million Americans, making up almost 80% of the Farm Bill’s funding, this situation has grown only more dire under this polarized Congress. The House version of the 2018 Farm Bill, which passed by a narrow margin in June, includes harmful and unnecessary barriers to access, like burdensome work requirements. On the other hand, the U.S. Senate version protects SNAP and includes pilot programs to connect SNAP recipients to work through effective employment and training programs. It is now up to a Conference Committee to work out the differences.

The premise of the additional work requirements (there are already work requirements in the current SNAP program) in the House Bill — that somehow people who use SNAP are lazy — is fundamentally wrong. Most adults on SNAP work and nearly 70% of SNAP participants are in families with children. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, SNAP provides a nutritionally adequate diet to 1 in 3 children (here)! Research shows children who benefit from SNAP are likelier to have better health and educational outcomes as adults. Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health’s Center report that a majority of registered voters oppose recent efforts to scale back SNAP food benefits and believe the government should be doing more to meet the needs of people facing food insecurity. However, pressure from the White House to pass the House version and the midterm elections to will make it difficult for GOP Senators to preserve their bipartisan bill.

Okay, so the Farm Bill is critical to the working poor. But what does it have to do with corporations that are not directly involved in food industry? Because SNAP supports millions of low wage workers working for Walmart, McDonald’s, Amazon and many others. 30% of Americans are working in jobs that barely lift a family above the poverty line, even if they were working full-time, year-round. SNAP also supports children who are their future employees! Research shows children who benefit from SNAP are likelier to have better health and educational outcomes as adults.

So what can you do about this? There has been a lot of support of the SNAP program from faith based groups (see Food Research & Action Center overview here). ICCR had a recent webinar where several faith groups and NGO’s described this urgent issue (recording here). The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition website (here) provides a wealth of information on the farm bill process and actions you can take.

This may be crowded out of the headlines, but it is vitally important to us.

ICCR Food and Water Strategic Review

By Frank Sherman

Last week, Chris & I participated in the ICCR Program Strategy Week. The Program Directors met with their Workgroups in NYC to evaluate the progress over the past year and chart out a path forward for the 2018-19 corporate engagement season. This article will summarize the Food strategy session.

The Food Workgroup has been focused on several issues over the past few years including the overuse of antibiotics in meat, supply chain deforestation, food waste, nutrition, pesticide use, and worker rights. As would be expected, many food & beverage (F&B) companies are confronted with many of these risks. Different ICCR investor groups often times deal with the same company in silos, leading to inefficient and ineffective engagements. In the future, the company leads will try to discuss their issue objectives and strategies with each other annually, inform each other of upcoming dialogues, and support each other with joint agendas.

Animal agriculture accounts for 70% of antibiotic use, most of which is not medically necessary. Although we are engaging the meat producers, our focus has been on restaurants and retailers. We have been successful in reducing antibiotics in poultry with Sanderson Farms being the last holdout (43% vote). We’ve made far less progress on beef, pork and turkey; however we anticipate a beef policy from McDonald’s by the end of the year which may be the catalyst for the industry. We will also collaborate with Karner Blue Capital on engaging F&B companies on animal welfare issues.

Deforestation has been a nexus of issues from deforestation and soil erosion to biodiversity loss and land & labor rights abuses. Investors and allied NGO’s have made considerable progress on palm oil with 74% of SE Asia’s palm oil refining capacity now covered by these No Deforestation, No Peat, No Exploitation (NDPE) sourcing policies. We plan to weigh in on RSPO’s update of the Principle & Criteria to strengthen them. Company commitments to source certified timber & pulp are also fairly extensive whereas commitments on sustainable beef and soy are far fewer, partly due to the lack of investor and NGO focus. This coming season, we will work with the broader global PRI investor coalition to focus on these commodities at companies who are creating the biggest impact.

With up to 40% of food (and all the resources that goes into producing it) wasted in the U.S., investors are calling on F&B companies to assess, reduce and optimally manage their food wastes. Kroger stepped up with their Zero Hunger-Zero Waste program with a target of zero food waste by 2025. Progress was also made at Target, Darden, McDonald’s, Kellogg and Hilton. The company target list will expand next season with stronger demands for companies to measure and report on waste reduction progress.

With more than 1 in 3 adults and 1 in 6 children considered to have obesity in the U.S. while 15% of American households are food insecure, nutrition continues to be a societal issue that we focus on. ICCR investors are engaging F&B manufacturers, retailers and restaurants to establish nutrition policies, improve product profiles, and change their marketing strategies, especially towards children. We have made progress in collaboration with the Access To Nutrition Index to encourage companies to improve their ranking. We will continue to work with UConn Rudd Center on marketing to children and minority communities.

We’ve increased our focus on food supply chain labor rights. We continue to support of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and are starting to advocate for meat processing workers in the U.S. We are planning a campaign on the poultry sector where workers are typically immigrants and often undocumented leading to abuses. This is also the case for farm workers who are subject to unethical recruitment practices. We plan to work with Oxfam who’s recently released report, Behind the Barcodes, exposes the root causes behind human suffering in food supply chains.

The Food Workgroup has a full agenda, and Seventh Generation Interfaith members are welcome to jump in.