Farmers' markets and community-supported agriculture programs are growing by leaps and bounds in Vermont and around the country. The "eat local" movement has come into its own. The localvore movement is increasingly involved in policy matters. The most important legislative vehicle for the movement is the "Farm to School" legislation, passed by a number of states and cities. According to the national Farm to School network, 38 states now are home to such programs, involving more than 10,000 schools.
Farm to School programs ensure that local farms will find reliable buyers for their bounty. These programs help kids develop lifelong eating habits that are the best defense against chronic illness. Good for the economy, good for kids – Farm to School legislation causes people to ask, "Why haven't we been doing this all along?"
States have taken the lead, but unfortunately the federal government has not always listened. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has resisted the inclusion of buy-local components in school food programs. The USDA has thwarted the implementation of such programs even though they are allowed under current federal rules.
Six months ago, USDA was finally put on the spot for its foot-dragging. Concerned parents, family farmers and state agencies of agriculture eager to expand the use of local food purchasing preferences presented their support to congress. The House and Senate both included buy local language in the new Farm Bill. The language was simple and explicit, clarifying that the secretary of agriculture "shall encourage … (the) purchase (of) locally produced foods to the maximum extent possible."
But a funny thing happened on the way to Conference Committee: Language in the Senate version of the bill was inserted to water down the buy local intent. The USDA worked to undermine congressional support for Farm to School programs.
The new Senate version of the bill would limit local purchasing preferences only to fruits and vegetables. This is unfortunate. While locally grown fruits and vegetables are a big piece of the program, this limitation would leave dairy producers, small livestock producers and other farmers out in the cold.
Local purchasing preferences help local farmers stay in business. They ensure that more tax dollars from a state stay in that state. Locally grown foods are fresher, safer and have a lower carbon footprint as compared to apples or beef shipped from halfway around the world.
The 11th-hour attempt to limit the use of buy local mandates should not stand. Congress must restore the local purchasing preference mandate to the federal Farm Bill as passed by the House. The Conference Committee needs to respond to states, cities and school districts to be innovative in food purchasing programs "to the maximum extent possible."
From Washington to Florida, from Hawaii to Maine, states are playing their traditional roles as laboratories of democracy, ensuring a healthy, local food supply for school kids.
The buy local train is leaving the station, and it's time for USDA to hear the whistle and get on board.
Sen. Ginny Lyons is chair of the Vermont Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee, a member of the Health and Welfare Committee and co-chair of the State Commission on International Trade and State Sovereignty.
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