February 2014

February 7, 2014, 10:30 AM-2:00 PM, Mississippi State Universiti

CAVS Center, Canton, MS

FACILITATOR   Roy Mitchell, MFPC Chairman

NOTE TAKERS    Ona Balkus and Lindsey Beckett, Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic

ATTENDEES 

  • Nancy Woodruff, representing herself
  • Margaret Thomas, Gaining Ground Hattiesburg Chapter
  • Christine Coker, Mississippi State University
  • Tammy Meyer, Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation
  • Mark Leggett, Mississippi Poultry Association
  • Judy Belue, Delta Fresh Foods
  • Bob Belue, Belue Consulting
  • Alfio Rausa, Mississippi State Department of Health
  • Girish Panicker, Alcorn University
  • Lydia West, representing herself
  • Langston Moore, Partnership for a Healthy Mississippi
  • Chris Aloia, William Winter Institute
  • Lacy Dodd, The University of Mississippi Department of Nutrition and Hospitality
  • Charles Houston, North Delta Produce Growers
  • Marianna Chauvin, CommonHealth ACTION
  • Julian Baer, U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee
  • Leigh Bailey, Salad Days LLC
  • Shelly Johnstone, Johnstone & Associates
  • Alicia Landry, Southern Miss Nutrition and Food Systems
  • Debbie Smith, Mississippi Health Advocacy Program
  • Roy Mitchell, Mississippi Health Advocacy Program
  • Connie Thomas, MSU Social Science Research Center
  • Maya McDoom, MSU Social Science Research Center
  • Desta Reff, MSU/Harvard Delta Fellow
  • Dietrich Johnson, North Delta Produce Growers
  • Tony Mason, North Delta Produce Growers
  • Lindsey Beckett, Harvard Law School
  • Ona Balkus, Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic

AGENDA TOPICS

AGRICUTURAL LENDING Lindsey Beckett, Harvard Law School

DISCUSSION       Members of the Council have recently become interested in state agricultural lending and whether advocating for more state programs in Mississippi should be a priority for the Council.  Many states have lending programs, which provide loans to farmers who might not otherwise be able to find capital to start or expand their farms.

While Mississippi currently has some programs in place, they do not appear to reach small farmers who would benefit from state lending. However, we need to do more research on the ground in Mississippi to better understand current programs.

Based on other states’ programs, there are several options that Mississippi could pursue. Federal Aggie Bonds involve the state issuing tax-exempt bonds, allowing banks to charge a lower interest rate to borrowers. Direct lending programs loan state funds directly to farmers and are often administered entirely by the state.  Loan guarantees do not involve any state money, but rather a promise made by the state to repay a loan to the bank if the borrower fails. Finally, loan participation consists of both the state and a bank providing capital in a joint loan. These programs can all also be targeted toward particular borrowers, such as small farmers or those growing certain fruits and vegetables.

Based on our current research, we would recommend that Mississippi work to set up the following programs, in this order: (1) expand the current loan participation program to include more small farmers, (2) set up an Aggie Bonds program, (3) offer direct lending to small farmers, and (4) set up a bridge loan program for federal loans with long waiting periods for disbursement.

Questions and Discussion:

Meeting attendees, particularly the farmers in the room, noted that loan terms need to be long enough for crops to mature and start to produce a significant harvest—probably at least 5 to 8 years.

Attendees said that the state should be sure to focus on crops with known health benefits, like blueberries and muscadines.

For many small farmers, they are growing on 20 acres or less. They can grow a significant amount of fruits and vegetables on that land, but they need the right equipment. The loans would be helpful in helping to finance the purchase of that equipment.

Are there other neighboring states to Mississippi running this type of program?

Yes, Tennessee is in the process of developing this type of program. Kentucky has an active loan fund program, in part funded by the tobacco settlement. Arkansas has direct loan and loan participation programs. Texas also has an active program which was highlighted in Ken Meter’s report.

LOCAL FOOD PROCUREMENT PREFERENCE RESEARCH    Ona Balkus, Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic

DISCUSSION       Mississippi’s schools, hospitals, and other public institutions currently import that vast majority of their food from out of state.  Local food procurement laws, which require such institutions to buy more Mississippi food, will help keep more of these financial resources within the state and in turn strengthen the local economy, improve public health, and increase access to healthy foods for low-income communities.

34 states currently have local procurement laws. There are three primary options we would urge Mississippi to consider. First, a 10% preference for local food would require public institutions to purchase from Mississippi growers when the Mississippi grower’s bid is up to 10% higher than an out-of-state bid. Second, Mississippi could establish a 10% target for local food purchases, which would encourage or require public institutions to purchase 10% of food from local sources. Finally, a “tie-goes-to-local” preference law would require state agencies to award contracts to local producers when cost, quantity, and quality are equal. This last policy approach would have the least positive impact on the local food economy, but would still be a good first step in demonstrating that the state legislature values locally grown food.

Some examples of successful programs include:

The University of Massachusetts-Amherst began purchasing more local food and saw a large increase in student enrollment in its dining plan. It now purchases 30% of its food from local services and has begun to make a significant profit for the university.

St. Jude’s Research Hospital in Memphis purchases food from farmers at the end of farmers’ markets for half-price and has started its own vegetable garden. Miles McMath, the head of food service at St. Jude’s, says they have ended up saving money through this program by being creative with their purchasing methods.

Questions and Discussion:

Would the farmers need to have GAP certification to sell to institutions?

We need to make sure farmers are aware that GAP certification is not necessary to sell to schools and other institutions. Often they don’t realize they can sell directly to schools without the certification. We’re also working with Mississippi on an alternative state certification.

How would we define “local” in this type of policy?

One of the trickier things is figuring out how to define what “local” food is.  Some states say in-state; others have mileage requirements (food grown within 100 miles is local).

It also might make a difference if something is locally processed. It would be good to consider this distinction as well.

Do we know how much local food is currently being purchased by Mississippi public institutions?

There’s a need for additional research on what’s going on now. At the moment, it’s hard to tell how much food purchased by institutions is actually grown locally because no one’s tracking it.  This is further complicated by the fact that farmers often sell to large distributors and then don’t know where their food ends up.

Could we get in touch with the Mississippi Hospital Association and Mississippi Department of Corrections and talk to them about how local procurement policies would benefit them? Perhaps they would take this on as a private initiative instead of us going through the legislature?

This is a great idea. The Council members should move forward on setting up these meetings.

LEGISLATIVE UPDATE     Ona Balkus, Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic

DISCUSSION       HB47 would create tax exemptions for converting agricultural land to residential use. It seems primarily to benefit the construction industry, since the exemption only applies during construction. We are concerned about the length of the transition period. In theory, it seems, someone could buy land and then be doing construction for the next 20 years.

HB506 decreases term of agricultural leases on Department of Corrections land. It’s unclear if this is helpful or harmful. On the one hand, it could make it easier for new farmers to access land that has in the past been locked into long-term contracts. However, it also might disincentive investments on the land.

HB1328 is the Small Business and Grocer Investment Act. It would establish a program that provides grants and loans to healthy food retailers that increase access to fresh fruits and vegetables and other affordable healthy food in underserved communities.  Currently, the bill does not have any funding. It’s likely that it will get out of the House. One sentence restricting stores receiving funds from having hot bars and delis in the current draft is problematic. The concern seems to be that the store will hurt restaurants, although that likely is not true. We have until February 13 to get it out of the Senate. One person mentioned that we may see resistance on the local level because of alcohol and tobacco being sold in new areas, which neighbors do not like.

SB2068 is a tourism bill that would allow restaurants to serve recreationally caught marine finfish to the persons who caught the fish.

SB2373 would make small changes to MDA funding.

S2297 and HB861 are agricultural promotion bills that aim to promote “Mississippi grown” branding.

HB 914 and SB 2418 deal with agricultural marketing coops. They would allow a coop to sell non-member products, but not more than 50%. The bills also revise rules about how to set up and operate a coop and raise the associated fee from $10 to $50.

Right now, we’re monitoring the bills. It is up to the board to decide if the Council should take a more aggressive stance for or against any of them.

LUNCH: GUEST SPEAKER JULIAN BAER   Julian Baer, U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee (Senator Cochran’s staff)

DISCUSSION:     Mr. Cochran gave an overview presentation of the recently passed Farm Bill that is expected to be signed by President Obama on Friday, February 7. He said that the farm bill was a hard-fought compromise by Members of Congress from around the country representing their regional interests.

One of the major shifts in the farm bill is the end of the Direct Payments program, which controversially gave money to farmers of commodity products such as corn, soy, cotton, wheat and rice. Instead, farmers now can only get subsidies through the crop insurance and counter cyclical support payments, which only kick in when a farmer experiences hardship either because of the economy, weather, or other risk factors related to agriculture.

Another major change, decided last weekend, was to give the U.S. Department of Agriculture the authority to buy excess dairy products to artificially increase demand in the market when there is a drop in sales. These dairy products will then be distributed to low-income government food assistance programs like TFAP, which provides the food distributed by food banks.

Mr. Cochran reported increased requirements and investments in the Title II Conservation provisions, a shift for world food programs to be cash-based rather than commodity based in Title III Trade, and an $8 billion cut in SNAP benefits aimed at closing the “Heat and Eat” loophole in many states. This loophole has allowed some states to report artificially lower incomes for more state residents and thus receive more SNAP aid than they would otherwise. Within the Nutrition Title, a Multiagency Task Force was established to promote increased collaboration between USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service and Ag Marketing Service, which have complimentary missions but currently have very limited communication.

There are a number of nutrition programs that are given new or enhanced support in the new farm bill. There is increased funding for Community Food Projects, which increase access to foods in underserved communities through community initiatives such as food hubs, CSAs, and other innovative models. There is also increased funding for delivery programs for seniors such as Meals on Wheels. These nonprofits will now be eligible to use SNAP benefits for the delivery of those foods. Similarly, online and mobile pilot programs will increase ways to redeem SNAP benefits. The Healthy Food Financing Initiative, modeled after the Food Trust project in Philadelphia, provides funding to healthy food retailers to open in underserved communities. The amount of TFAP money distributed to food banks will increase substantially.

There is a significant increase in the support of specialty crops, regional food systems, and organic production in the new farm bill. SNAP beneficiaries will now be able to use their benefits on CSAs. Farm to School programs will be encouraged to use geographic preferences and tap into USDA resources. Double Up Food Bucks, which act as an incentive for SNAP recipients to spend their dollars at farmers markets and other direct to consumer outlets, will be more available. While the EBT cost-share program has ended for grocery stores, it will continue to be available for CSAs, farmers markets, roadside stands, and other small outlets.

Title V (Credit) continues the Farm Loans and Beginning Farmers and Ranchers Program and establishes a new foundation of food and agricultural research to enhance public/private partnerships and research. The Specialty Crop Research Initiative will increase support to research on organic and specialty crop production.

Title X (Horticulture) has a large focus on local markets. The Farmers Markets and Local Food Promotion Program (FMLFPP) will increase investments in organic education programs for growers and will include a new Organic Check Off promotion program that teaches consumers about the benefits of purchasing organic foods. Mr. Baer highlighted the challenge of wanting to make sure this promotion program does not disparage other food commodities.

Specialty Crop Block grants will be increased, and the farm bill also commissions a comprehensive study of local food production. Included in this study, USDA will be looking at regulatory burdens and challenges to local production, including GAP/GHP, lack of information, etc.

Mr. Baer summarized his presentation by highlighting the “big picture” differences between this farm bill and the last one, including: (1) the process of passing the farm bill unprecedented in how partisan and complicated it became; (2) money had to be cut significantly, because of the sequestration and sinking baselines; (3) the House version of the Farm Bill had made unprecedented amounts of cuts to the Nutrition Title, pointing to that we need to consider how to make the nutrition programs more targeted and efficient to avoid further cuts; and (4) there was a new, significant focus on local and organic production.

Mr. Baer emphasized that the next steps include USDA implementation and state participation in these new funding opportunities. He encouraged people to contact him with any questions and watch for funding opportunities. He also said to watch out for the Child Nutrition Reauthorization, which expires in September 2015. This will be an opportunity for advocacy and engagement with legislators. Mr. Baer can be reached at: 202-224-2035, or by email at Julian_Baer@ag.senate.gov.

Questions:

Chris Aloya: Even without the direct payments, aren’t corn farmers still getting the bulk of government subsidies? This will still contribute to our obesity epidemic and high healthcare costs as long as high fructose corn syrup is artificially cheap.

Baer: First, it’s important to note that much of that corn is not going to make high fructose corn syrup. It’s going to livestock feed and other uses. Second, with the direct payments ending, farmers will only get subsidies in the form of crop insurance, so they have to be “actively engaged in farming” to be eligible. This means farmers will be paying into this program and will only get funding if they lose a significant portion of their crop.

Nancy Woodruff: Since you are focusing more on local foods, it sounds like to some extent you are following consumer trends. What about supporting grassfed beef, another small market but growing consumer trend?

Baer: We do look at consumer trends, but the farm bill is more driven by the overall agriculture market than by consumer trends.

SUMMARY OF KEY FINDINGS FROM MISSISSIPPI FARM AND FOOD ECONOMY STUDY   Nancy Woodruff

DISCUSSION:     The report was written by the new Subcommittee on Local Food Systems.  It provides an overview of the Mississippi food and farm economy.  The report is currently under revision at will be released at the end of March. Right now, we’re sharing preliminary information.

The biggest conclusion is that increasing local purchases keeps significant money in Mississippi economy.

Key facts and figures:

The Mississippi farm and food economy loses $8.5 billion every year. $6.5 billion of that is consumer spending on food not from Mississippi.

Mississippi farmers sell $100 million in fruits and vegetables, but Mississippi consumers buy $729 million worth (and hopefully this number will increase).

Currently, Mississippi has the highest level of diabetes in country.

SUBCOMITTEE REPORTS Subcommittee Chairs

DISCUSSION:     Local Food Systems Subcommittee: We have been focused on the report (just discussed). We have also discussed drafting language for a local food system resolution in the state legislature in future years. Additionally, we have developed list of potential partners interested in economic development, allowing us to push our work as a development issue.

Farm to Institution Subcommittee: We received positive feedback on the recent conference. Our next step is working to strengthen regional groups.

Markets Subcommittee: May collaborate with the Food Safety Subcommittee. Regulations on protein products are also an issue we should look into. It may make sense to put this under the Markets Subcommittee.

Food Access Subcommittee: This group was recently revived and will focus on WIC, SNAP, farmers market, nutrition, food deserts, and food pantries. The group leaders are open to suggestions. Alicia Landry from Southern Mississippi Nutrition and Food Systems and Christine Coker from Mississippi State University are the new chairs of this Subcommittee and welcome suggestions and new members!

The Council is also considering potential new subcommittees: Funding/Membership, Defining Health and Food, and Food Consumer Awareness (the idea here is to increase awareness among Mississippi consumers of the economic and health value of buying within the state).

DISCUSSION:     The Council needs to explore what will work best for Mississippi out of our priorities.  One big priority is the GAP issue; other states have found alternatives to GAP.  We want to develop something that is less burdensome for farmers.

We want to encourage people to become members.  Only members can vote, and it would be great to have a higher number of people behind the Council’s proposals.

UPCOMING EVENTS

GIP/GAP education: Monday in Raymond; February 17th in Starkville; March in Biloxi

Farm to Institution Workshop with the Alliance for Sustainable Ag: February 24 in Goodman, MS

February 24: Farm to School event in Cleveland, MS

**The Council’s next meeting is scheduled for Friday, May 2.