The Fresh Regional Eating for Schools and Health (FRESH) Act will improve federal farm programs that support local and regional farming and access to healthy food. This legislation would ensure that federal nutrition spending helps promote healthier eating and increases consumption of fruits and vegetables while helping local agriculture. It does so by providing healthier choices for recipients of federal programs, pushing USDA’s technology agenda forward, increasing flexibility for state and local stakeholders, and providing better tools for small and beginning farmers.
Providing Flexibility for State Innovation in the SNAP Program
FRESH allows states to apply for a waiver to encourage better nutritional outcomes for recipients of the Supplemental Nutrition Access Program (SNAP), formerly called food stamps. Currently, the SNAP program is one size fits all – states have little flexibility to try out innovative approaches. There are many states that want to encourage healthier eating habits and improve health outcomes through the SNAP program, and this waiver process would give states the flexibility to apply their own innovative ideas. These waivers could encourage healthy purchasing patterns and allow stores to provide incentives for SNAP recipients to purchase more healthy foods.
Allowing School Districts to Buy More Local and Regional Food
Currently, local school districts receive federal assistance to help pay for school lunches. Part of that money must be spent through an aggregated USDA program with food purchased nationwide. That means that Oregon schools are required to spend millions of dollars in federal assistance on commodity food products distributed through the USDA, with no idea where they are from. FRESH would allow schools to spend half of this money on locally and regionally produced agriculture, rather than using funds to purchase food from federal warehouses. Schools would be given the flexibility to buy fresh produce for their students, support local food economies and to know the farms where their food was coming from.
Expanding SNAP EBT acceptance and data sharing
Many food stands and farmers markets now accept credit and debit cards with a simple attachment for their smartphone or tablet. FRESH would require USDA to encourage and help states to implement the same technology for the cards that SNAP recipients use.
Increase Accountability for Major SNAP Providers
To better track how taxpayer money is spent, the legislation also requires those corporations that receive more than $1 million a year from the SNAP program to provide taxpayers with an itemized receipt for their share of the over $70 billion each year that is spent in the SNAP program.
Making WIC certification easier for stores
In order to be certified to accept benefits from the Women, Infants and Children program, stores must go through an in-person training process from the state WIC authority. This is problematic for both the state agencies whose resources are strained and for rural stores in food deserts, which are often moved to the end of the line in the certification process since they are difficult to get to in person. FRESH allows for alternate forms of training, like over the phone or via videoconferencing, which will expedite the approval process and save money.
Small loans for family farms
USDA currently operates an operating loan program, which allows for farmers to receive loans of up to $300,000. With the tightening of lending in the banking sector, this program has become more important than ever. These loans come with long application processes to ensure that such large amounts of taxpayer dollars are being spent well.
However, many small farmers don’t need such a large loan. They need a smaller loan to fix a truck or buy their chickens feed. FRESH requires USDA to implement an expedited microloan program with reduced paperwork requirements for loans of up to $5,000. This would help small farms quickly access the capital they need to do business. The bill also expands eligibility for USDA operating loans to nonprofit groups - letting a local food bank get help for growing a small garden for food or buying a refrigerator to store perishables.
Help farmers to get Farm Service Agency (FSA) direct and guaranteed operating loans
This bill suspends the 15-year limit for farmers to use FSA-guaranteed operating loans and the 7-year limit for them to use FSA direct operating loans. By suspending these time limits indefinitely, farmers will have more access to these critical capital tools.
During this protracted period of tight credit for farmers, particularly for new farmers and small to mid-sized farmers who want to expand, these time limits on their ability to get FSA direct and guaranteed operating loans make little sense. Also, FSA loans serve as a safety net during tough economic times. Right now, for example, the prices for Oregon’s cranberry, grass seed and nursery products are down and some of the farmers who grow these products will need direct operating loans to carry them through until prices return to pre-recession levels.
Increase new farmers’ access to FSA Direct Farm Ownership Loans
Under current law, new farmers must have three years of farm management experience to get these direct loans to buy farm land. This bill allows the completion of college degrees related to business and agriculture as an alternative to this hands-on experience, for example, Horticulture or Agricultural Business Management degrees. This will give young folks more opportunities to get the capital needed to start a farm.
On SNAP Waiver
Q: What kind of waivers do you envision states applying for with this new authority?
A:States will be able to bring together stakeholders to implement a number of innovative proposals. For example, a state could create a reward system for grocers that sell healthier foods. A grocery store could offer discounts for healthy purchases with SNAP. Or, they could create disincentives for the purchase of junk food.
Q: Why is this authority needed?
A: USDA has been extraordinarily strict in approving any waivers that would lead to improved nutrition – they have made the policy decision that it’s too difficult to try. Passage of this language would indicate that Congress wants them to allow good faith efforts to get more healthy foods on the plates of folks who need it most.
Q: Isn’t it impossible to measure any health outcomes from limiting what food stamps can buy?
A: Part of the problem is we don’t know just what food stamps are being used for – that’s why the FRESH Act requires stores that sell over a million dollars worth of goods to SNAP recipients to provide the government with a receipt.
It’s true that there isn’t a mathematical formula for eating healthy. What this bill says is that states should be allowed to use common sense measures to encourage healthy eating. We don’t know just how unhealthy junk food makes you, but it certainly doesn’t improve health. This legislation would allow for common sense encouragement of healthier eating and discouragement of less healthy eating when it comes to SNAP.
Q: Do you think food stamps are a flawed program? How does this fit into recent reports of fraud in the food stamp program?
A: Most food stamp dollars are not going to fraud or frappuchinos – the overwhelming majority go to basic staples like eggs and bread. Food stamps are one of the most important lifelines for poor families in the history of our country, and they’ve been especially important to make sure people don’t go hungry in the current economic downturn. They’re also one of the most important nutrition programs for those families. Food stamp funding deserves to be protected, and Senator Wyden will continue to fight to ensure that funding is there when it’s needed. One or two cases of bad behavior isn’t a reason to cut off needy families from the food stamp program.
On EBT expansion
Q: Why should USDA take the lead on EBT certification?
A: It makes no sense to have 50 different standards for smartphone apps that take EBT throughout the country – USDA needs to take a leadership role on making sure this technology works throughout the country so that EBT is more easily accepted at food stands and at farmers’ markets. This will encourage innovators to work on the best, cheapest, and most efficient way of getting EBT acceptance to as many qualified food sources as possible, instead of spending their time trying to convince 50 different states that their program is best.
On WIC training and certification
Q: Shouldn’t stores have to prove that they’re going to be good merchants of the WIC population?
A: Of course they should - most of these stores are not new operations, and they’re often chain stores. Safeway is going to have baby formula and bread. Albertsons is going to carry eggs. There’s no reason to assume that they are going to be bad actors. Instead, we should do what we can to make sure they are going to be able to serve WIC participants from day one.
On School Lunch Flexibility
Q: Why shift the focus away from the USDA commodity program?
A: Many schools in Oregon have told Senator Wyden that they would rather buy food from the farm down the road than food from a USDA warehouse, which may have originated from 2,000 miles down the road. This will not only lower the carbon footprint for these schools, it will also provide a boost for local agriculture and provide better food for students.
Q: What if a school doesn’t have local farms nearby? What will they do then?
A: Under this legislation, schools can elect to use all their funding in the school commodity program – if they can’t find what they need locally, they can go to the omnibus USDA program to get it.
Q: What about the carveout for specialty crops?
A: The Secretary of Agriculture is provided with the authority in this bill to ensure that specialty crops like fruits and berries are purchased for the school lunch program in the same volume that they are currently purchased – in all likelihood, more Oregon specialty crops will end up in Oregon schools.
On FSA Loans
Q: Shouldn’t it be a hard thing to get a loan from the government? Why should we reduce the requirements?
A: Sure, if you are borrowing a quarter of a million dollars, the Federal government ought to make sure that you are qualified. But if you’re a small farmer who just needs $4,000 to fix a piece of machinery, the process should be much simpler. Small farmers are less likely to abandon their commitments – they need their farm to make a living at all. This bill tells the USDA to create an expedited microloan program for loans up to $5,000, which will help small farms to get quick access to the capital they need.
Q: What kind of borrowing does this bill effect?
A. The FRESH Act suspends the limits on how many years farmers can get operating loans through the Farm Service Agency (FSA). Operating loans are the lifeblood of many farmers, letting them finance their farms each year until they sell crops for income. During this long, long period of tight credit, it makes no sense for the government to impose any limits on the ability farmers to get FSA operating loans.
Q: Why are FSA loans important?
A. FSA loans serve as a safety net during tough economic times. Right now for example, the prices for Oregon’s cranberry, grass seed and nursery products are down and some of the farmers who grow these will need FSA loans to stay afloat.
Q: How will this affect new farmers?
A. The FRESH Act will help young people to buy land with the FSA’s Direct Farm Ownership Loans. Under current law, young people must manage a farm for three years before they’re eligible to get these loans. The FRESH Act will let young people with college degrees in agriculture and business to get these FSA loans without having to wait three years. That will give young people who prepare themselves to run a farm more chances to buy the land they’ll need.