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Proposed Law Could Reduce Food Deserts, Boost Vegetable Production by Commodity Growers

The two Illinois representatives in the U.S. House seem far apart in several ways. Mike Bost, a Republican from Murphysboro, represents a district at the southern end of the state. Robin Kelly is a northern Illinois Democrat whose district includes part of Chicago’s south side as well as farms in Kankakee County.  

Yet the two are teaming up on legislation that could make it easier for farmers to provide fresh produce to food deserts – low-income areas that don’t have grocery stores selling fresh vegetables. Last summer they cosponsored the “Feeding America through Farm Flexibility Act of 2017,” which might be part of the next farm bill.

The proposed law would allow farmers to plant an additional 5% of their commodity crop base acres to vegetables if the harvest is sold or donated into a food desert with a poverty rate of at least 20%.

Under the Agricultural Act of 2014, farmers already can plant 15% of their base to vegetables if enrolled in the county level price loss coverage (PLC) or county agriculture risk coverage (ARC) and up to 35% if enrolled in the individual farm-level ARC program. The Kelly-Bost bill bumps the allowed levels up to 20% for county-level programs and 40% for individual ARC, if growers meet the requirements to serve food deserts from the extra 5%.

Kelly, who introduced a similar bill two years earlier, said she got the idea after she and her staff met with some of the 1,200 farmers in her district and representatives of the Illinois Farm Bureau. Some of those farmers already allow churches to pick sweet corn or have worked with urban food banks, she said.

“Farmers are already giving and already have the connections,” she recently told Agriculture.com. “This won’t solve all the issues, but I think it will help and it will make a difference.”

Some 23 million Americans live in food deserts, and they aren’t all in large cities.

mike-bost
Mike Bost
In his district, Cairo, Illinois doesn’t have a grocery store, Bost said. (The town’s only grocery store selling fresh produce closed in 2015, but a new one, Harvest Market Place, was scheduled to open in late 2017.)

Bost, who serves on the House Agriculture Committee, also sees the food deserts bill he and Kelly are sponsoring as a way to help farmers in his district.

“They get a twofer. They’re helping people, and it’s allowing them to expand and diversify their production,” Bost said.

Bost didn’t need much convincing to cosponsor Kelly’s bill this year.

“We’ve been friends a long time,” he said. “We actually served in the Illinois legislature together.”

Planting vegetables on commodity crop base acres has long been opposed by commercial vegetable growers in California, Florida, and elsewhere. In the past, they’ve seen that as unfairly subsidized production.

Yet, as any farmer who struggled to decide between signing up for PLC or ARC already knows, government payments aren’t a sure bet. Partly to satisfy the local foods movement and processors, the 2014 farm bill allowed farmers to plant vegetables on the portion of their base acres that isn’t eligible for any payments.  

Bost doesn’t expect a fight over allowing another 5% of those base acres to serve food deserts.

“I don’t think there is opposition. This is a practical bill. I think everyone will be for it,” he said.

At the Illinois Farm Bureau, national farm policy specialist Adam Nielsen says he doesn’t know exactly how the food deserts law will work in practice, although his group is a strong supporter.

“They’ve had such miserable weather the last two years in Kankakee County,” Nielsen said, so he’s not certain if any farmers raising vegetables will expand.

With the potential to get ARC or PLC payments on a small amount of vegetable production, “there’s a little bit of incentive there,” he said. “Is it enough? We’ll see.”

Also, if the vegetables are donated rather than sold, “you could potentially be getting a writeoff on your taxes,” Nielsen said.

Of course, the bill has the potential to help consumers in urban and rural food deserts in many states. But it grew out of Kelly’s congressional district.

“Representative Kelly represents the only Chicago congressional district that reaches into the suburbs and into an entire rural county, where ag is the top industry and where there historically has been some fruit and vegetable production. So, it's a unique district,” he said.

“This legislation could foster a real, meaningful connection between farmers and urban consumers,” he said. “That's something that always appealing to us.”

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