Illinois lawmakers take on 'food deserts'
An Illinois Democrat says she's found a way to please everyone in her diverse district with legislation that would alleviate Chicago-area "food deserts" by lifting a barrier to fruit and vegetable production in rural areas.
Rep. Robin Kelly's "Feeding America through Farm Flexibility Act" would modify a rule that disincentivizes farmers of major commodities, such as corn and wheat, from switching production to fruits and vegetables.
The current rule allows farmers of certain crops to have price or revenue guarantees from the federal government, but only if they do not grow fruit, vegetables, or wild rice on more than 15 percent of their commodity "base acres."
Kelly's bill would raise the cap to 20 percent if the extra produce is sold or donated in "food deserts," poorer areas where high-quality groceries are lacking.
Downstate Illinois Rep. Mike Bost, a Republican, is cosponsoring the Illinois Farm Bureau-backed bill, and the pair hopes to land the policy change in this year's farm bill.
"I'm disappointed it hasn't been done already. I can't give you a good rhyme or reason," Kelly said.
Montana State University economics professor Vincent Smith, a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, said lobbying decades ago led to the rule.
The current system, reformed in 2014, allows a farmer to "retire to Honolulu" and still collect government pay for the "base acres" they historically used for a commodity, Smith said. The farmer can do nothing with the land and still collect income. Or they can use the land for cattle grazing or other agricultural purposes and get paid.
"[Farmers] can do pretty much anything on it other than convert it to carrots or put in an apple orchard," he said.
That's because fruit growers in Florida and vegetable growers in California were concerned in the 1990s that farmers in other regions would choose not to plant their mainstay corn and wheat — while still pocketing the subsidy — and instead grow fruits and vegetables and drive down prices, Smith said.
"Farmers are good lobbyists," Smith said. "A better policy would be to end the current program that utilizes the program of base acres."
Yet, as long as the current system exists, Smith said the Kelly-Bost reform "seems perfectly reasonable," allowing for more efficient use of farmer resources while resulting in a potentially small price reduction for all consumers.
Fruit growers in Florida and California "probably won't care anymore," he said. "By now, they will have worked out this has had a limited effect." The fact that the reform narrowly requires the produce be sold in Agriculture Department-defined food deserts — where poverty exceeds 20 percent and where there's unreliable access to fruits and vegetables — further limits the potential effect.
"You can never tell, some irate donor to some random Michigan lawmaker might become unhappy about this idea," he said. "But the scope of this change is very narrow, and the effect of the price of lettuce, cucumber, or oranges is likely it to be immeasurably small."
Jenny Ifft, an agriculture policy expert who teaches at Cornell University, agreed with Smith's description of the current system and said the reform "would definitely help some people, the principle is good." She doubts, however, that there would be a large-scale transition to fruit and vegetable production in the Midwest.
"It's hard to switch crops; it's not that simple," she said.
"If you're going to give a subsidy, you want people to have flexibility for sure. It's not controversial at all," she said. "Maybe you have to link it to food deserts to do it."
Smith and Ifft note that changing policy is always difficult, especially with the farm bill, where reforms largely are developed by the House and Senate agriculture committees.
Bost, however, serves on the House Agriculture Committee, and Kelly feels good about its chances. She believes the reform will help food depositories in her urban area and imagines churches helping facilitate the conveyance of fresh produce.
"There's someone else I spoke with on the agriculture committee, and she said they're trying to work it into the farm bill. So, I'm keeping my fingers crossed, and because it's a bipartisan bill, I think it has a good chance," she said.