Approximately every five years since the 1930s, Congress has enacted a large piece of legislation known as the “farm bill.”1 The farm bill encompasses policies related to hunger, farm support programs, and a variety of other topics relevant to food and agriculture.2 The most recent farm bill, the Agricultural Act of 2014, authorized $956 billion in spending over a ten year period, $756 billion of which was directed to fund the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), previously known as the Food Stamp Program.3 Crop insurance, commodities, and conservation programs are the next largest expenditures authorized by the Agricultural Act of 2014, making up another twenty percent of farm bill spending.4 Though the exact allocation of monies varies with each farm bill, this breakdown of programs, with over three-quarters of funding dedicated to SNAP, has become typical in the past decade.5 The remaining quarter of funding is primarily used for programs that directly benefit agricultural producers, including subsidies, crop insurance, research and training, and community works projects.6
The farm bill impacts local-level policy efforts to promote access to healthy food by providing support and funding for educational activities and other efforts. Additionally, some farm bill programs are implemented at the state and local level, giving local advocates the opportunity to engage directly with many of these policies and their administrators. For example, SNAP is managed by state agencies and each state has some flexibility in how it administers the program.7
Originally created during the Great Depression and Dust Bowl as a market stabilization measure, the farm bill has grown to encompass a variety of programs separated into sections called “titles.”8 (The 2014 Farm Bill has twelve titles.9) Each title provides resources to consumers, producers, and communities across the country.10 Changes from one farm bill to the next tend to be incremental rather than sweeping, though Congress has made major changes at times.11 Through each iteration, farm bills modify existing federal policy by renewing some programs, while eliminating and creating others.12 For example, the 2008 Farm Bill (known as the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act) created the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP) to provide education, training, and resources to young farmers.13 The program was modified and extended in the 2014 Farm Bill.14
Farm bills also effectuate federal policy by allocating funds for programs and by authorizing federal agencies to take certain actions.15 The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is the primary agency tasked with carrying out the many mandates of farm bills, including administering SNAP, executing rural development programs, and operating the National Institute for Food and Agriculture, which provides research and funding opportunities for educational institutions and agricultural producers.
The farm bill provides a variety of resources and tools which could be leveraged at the local level to advance the work of healthy food advocates and policy makers. These subject areas of the farm bill — listed in bold in descriptions below and linked in the subsequent chart — provide funding opportunities to municipalities, organizations, and individuals; promote food access; and provide resources for the production, transportation, marketing, and sale of healthy foods.
SNAP, the largest expenditure in recent farm bills, is an essential food security and anti-hunger program for communities and tribes across the U.S.16 SNAP eligibility is sometimes used as a metric for determining qualification for programs at the local level; however, SNAP data only encompasses individuals who have enrolled in SNAP and leaves out people who would are not enrolled but would otherwise be intended beneficiaries of these programs. The farm bill also provides funds for farmers’ markets, including those operated by municipalities, to secure electronic benefit transfer (EBT) equipment so that SNAP participants can use their benefits to purchase locally grown products.17 SNAP recipients can typically apply for benefits and get other information about SNAP through local offices in counties or districts within a state. 18
The farm bill authorizes a number of loan and grant programs, some of which accept applications from both individuals and communities. These programs include grants, microloans, and business and industry loans.19 For example, in fiscal year 2017, the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) was awarded a $500,000 grant to increase local food access for transit users in Atlanta, Georgia.20 MARTA used these funds to create four “Fresh MARTA Markets” at rail stations to provide a convenient shopping alternative for healthy, locally grown foods for residents who may typically have limited access to these goods.21
The Farm Bill also funds conservation programs. These programs provide financial and technical assistance to support efforts to reduce soil loss, increase biodiversity, and promote good land management practices.22 The Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP), Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), and Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) are examples of conservation programs which may be of interest to local policymakers.23 The RCPP program in particular provides a unique opportunity for localities to collaborate with other community groups and stakeholders to achieve a common conservation-related goal.24 For example, in Michigan, the city of Ann Arbor’s Greenbelt program, alongside eight partner groups, was granted more than a million dollars to preserve agricultural lands, protecting the regional economy and increasing food security and access to local foods.25
Rural development programs are another important component of the farm bill. These programs aim to build successful farming operations and robust communities in the areas where much of our nation’s food is grown.26 The Rural Development title of the farm bill provides funding for electrification, including through renewable energy sources, broadband internet access, infrastructure projects, loans, and housing.27 In St. Lucie, Florida, the Board of County Commissioners was awarded nearly $100,000 through the Rural Business Development Grant Program to conduct a feasibility study connecting local food growers and processors with commercial airlines.28
The farm bill also supports important nutrition education programs and other educational resources through Agricultural Extension Programs, the USDA Farm Service Agency, the National Institute for Food and Agriculture, programs at land grant colleges, and others. Education and outreach opportunities provide a particularly useful resource for those who wish to engage in local healthy food policy activities; Extension Programs in particular operate in nearly every county across the United States and could act as a partner in local healthy food initiatives.29 For example, Purdue Extension, Indiana’s Extension office, provides a variety of resources and programming to engage agricultural producers, consumers, youth, and communities, all of which could be leveraged as engagement opportunities by local policy makers.30
|What Does It Do?
|Who Can Apply?
|Funding Amount/ Range
|Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive Grant Program (FINI)
|Incentivizes the purchase of fresh fruits and vegetables by SNAP participants.
|Non-profits, local and state government entities, tribal organizations, farmers’ markets, Community Supported Agriculture programs, cooperatives, and other food retailers.
|$100K – $500K
|Partnership with a SNAP retailer.
|Farmers Market Promotion Program
Programs have been combined and are now called Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program; USDA website does not reflect this change at the time of this writing
|Increases domestic consumption of and access to locally grown agricultural products and expand market opportunities for direct-to-consumer producers.
|Agricultural businesses, cooperatives, Community Supported Agriculture networks and associations, local and tribal governments, economic development corporations, producer networks and associations, public benefit corporations, regional farmers’ market authorities.
|$25K – $500K
|Funds must be used for marketing and promotional activities, capacity building, or training, education, and technical assistance.
|Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program
|Enhances the sustainability of the next generation of farmers through education, outreach, training, and mentorship programs.
|Collaboratives: state, local, tribal, or regional networks or partnerships.
|$300K – $600K
|Group should be a collaborative comprising unique stakeholders
|Regional Conservation Partnership Program
|Builds innovative interdisciplinary teams to collaboratively expand voluntary private land conservation.
|Nonprofits, farmers, tribal entities, landowners
|Proposed project must improve soil health, water quality and quantity, wildlife habitat, or air quality on private land.
|National Institute for Food and Agriculture grant programs
|Enhances the impact of food and agriculture, natural resources, and human sciences through funding collaborative scientific projects focused on six priority areas: food security, climate variability and change, water, sustainable bio-energy, childhood obesity prevention, and food safety.
|Land-Grant universities, government, private, and non-profit organizations.
|Wide variety of grants available for a broad range of topics, such as the Community Food Projects Competitive Grant Program (CFP)
|Varies based on grant
|Finances the needs of small, beginning, niche, and nontraditional farming operations
|Traditional and non-traditional family farms and ranches
|Applicant must be a family farmer with history of meeting credit obligations and be unable to obtain credit elsewhere.
|Rural Development Programs
|Various programs which aim to support rural business and communities to save and create jobs in rural America.
|Businesses in rural areas: partnerships, individuals, cooperatives, for-profit and nonprofit corporations
|Various loans and grants offered