2023 Farm Bill: Advancing Public Health at the Intersection of Food, Environment, and Economic Policy
Every five years, Congress passes the “Farm Bill,” a large piece of packaged legislation that was originally designed to support the U.S. food and agriculture systems, and today sets national policy on agriculture, farming, nutrition, conservation, and forestry. Its resulting impacts range from grocery store supply chains and school lunches to education, climate justice, jobs, immigration, and—at the core of all of these issues—public health.
The 19th Farm Bill—up for renewal in 2023—will impact all of our communities. From the national to the local level, changemakers in public health and related fields like food systems, environmental justice, and economic policy have the opportunity to come together for cross-sector collaboration and multisolving solutions that advance health equity.
What is the Farm Bill?
Prior to the farm bills, U.S. agricultural policy focused on land distribution, increasing agricultural productivity, and research and education programs. The first Farm Bill—the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933—was passed as a response to falling U.S. crop prices after World War I and the combined challenges of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression. In order to reduce surplus, raise crop prices, and achieve a “fair exchange value” for agricultural products, the Agricultural Adjustment Act provided subsidy payments to farmers in exchange for reducing production for specified commodity crops. The second Farm Bill—the Agricultural Act of 1938—continued to address crop prices, but also incorporated crop insurance to manage risk, and soil conservation to address the ecological crisis of soil erosion. Farmers were provided compensation for planting soil-supporting crops and for reducing crops that caused soil erosion.
While the original purposes of the farm bills—supporting farmers and the U.S. food and agriculture systems—have remained central, their policies and overall reach have changed significantly over time. Since 1973, the farm bills have also included re-authorization of funding for and changes to food assistance programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Climate change, renewable energy, and forestry have also been key topics in previous farm bills.
Today, the Farm Bill is the United States’ largest piece of packaged legislation that funds our national food and agriculture systems. The Farm Bill’s twelve titles include: commodities, conservation, trade, nutrition, credit, rural development, research, forestry, energy, horticulture, crop insurance, and a miscellaneous title that includes issues like beginning farming, socially disadvantaged farmers, veteran farmers and ranchers, agricultural labor safety, workforce development, and livestock health.
While it most deeply affects agricultural, rural, and Indigenous communities, the far-reaching food, economic, and environmental policy implications impact the health and well-being of all Americans.
The farm bill connects the food on our plates, the farmers and ranchers who produce that food, and the natural resources – our soil, air and water – that make growing food possible. –The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition
KEY POLICY CONTEXTS
COVID-19, Climate Change, and Farmland Loss in 2023
Since the onset of COVID-19, farmers and farmworkers have worked tirelessly to prevent the global coronavirus crisis from becoming a hunger crisis. From lockdowns and outbreaks, to breaks in the supply chain, disruptions to im/migration and the labor force, and rapidly shifting market demands, the resilience of agricultural communities has been deeply tested. While COVID-19 created some opportunities to bridge long-standing service gaps for rural communities—such as expanded telehealth—the pandemic primarily exacerbated already deep-rooted concerns.
For most U.S. farmers, however, COVID-19 is just one of many modern challenges that needs policy attention. Hurricanes, historically poor planting seasons, increasingly unpredictable weather, retaliatory tariffs impacting exports, rising utility costs, labor shortages, and many other factors have been building over the past several years. Modern farming communities have adapted to the best of their abilities, but the compounding pressures have pushed tens of thousands of farmers out of business. Since 1950, self-employed farming has declined over 73% and farmwork employment has declined 52%. In 2020, climate-related disasters alone cost farmers $3.6 billion in crop and rangeland losses. Farmland loss due to development, retirement, and unaffordability also remains a significant concern:
From 2001–2016, 11 million acres of agricultural land were paved over, fragmented, or converted to uses that jeopardize agriculture. New American Farmland Trust research indicates that the U.S. is projected to lose an additional 18.4 million acres by 2040. Once this finite resource is developed, it never returns to farming… Over 40% of farmland is expected to change hands by 2035. –American Farmland Trust
The first COVID-era Farm Bill, the forthcoming 2023 legislation offers the opportunity to address these and many other critical issues that impact the health and well-being of all U.S. residents. Key issues in the 2023 Farm Bill include:
Indigenous Coalition priorities
Environmental health and justice
SNAP and food system stability
Growing jobs and economic opportunity, especially for rural communities, migrant workers, and farmworkers
KEY PUBLIC HEALTH ISSUES
SNAP, Jobs, Land Access, and Climate Justice
Key public health issues in the 2023 Farm Bill include food, economic, environmental, and place-based justice. The 2023 priorities include keeping food and farming together in a unified Farm Bill, as well as protecting and expanding access to farmland, addressing the urgent climate crisis, and expanding economic opportunities. Each of these priority areas is important in its own right, but also has important implications for public health and equity:
Food justice and security, SNAP, and public health: Because U.S. food systems are so closely tied to farming, it is essential to advance food justice and public health priorities within agriculture policy. For example, SNAP, one of the nation’s most important food assistance programs, is funded and expanded through the Farm Bill. 2023 poses a historic opportunity to extend the expanded COVID-19 SNAP benefits, improve equitable access to SNAP, and improve access to basic needs for health and safety. Addressing this and other agricultural priorities together allows changemakers to multisolve for critical public health equity issues like food security.
Jobs, economic justice, and public health: In 2020, agriculture, food, and related industries accounted for 19.7 million jobs—10% of U.S. employment. Despite labor shortages and the decline in farming and farm-based employment, these industries remain a cornerstone of the United States economy. Striving to build flourishing food and agriculture systems also means creating job opportunities and advancing health and economic justice through meaningful work and wealth.
Climate justice, farming, and public health: Climate change is one of the largest factors impacting food access and food security today. From global to local, it causes supply chain disruption, land loss, crop and livestock loss, and other factors that directly impact the food we eat. 2023 Farm Bill priorities like regenerative agriculture—the land management philosophy of growing in harmony with nature, clean energy, soil health, and sustainable production practices are critical to advancing environmental health through agriculture policy. Supporting agricultural, Tribal, and rural communities through disaster mitigation and response, market stabilization and access, and land security and financing can help improve the equity for farmers impacted by climate change. By working toward climate justice through the lens of food and agriculture, changemakers can co-design policy solutions that advance health equity and a thriving natural world broadly across multiple sectors.
Community development, land access, and spatial equity: The same pressures that push farmers out of farmland create vast inequities for all members of rural, Tribal, and other marginalized communities. Issues like access to financial capital, affordable housing, healthcare, education, and food impact all American communities. By centering rural communities and prioritizing equitable community development across diverse geographies, the Farm Bill can help build health equity for all communities.
Indigenous Coalitions, Migrant Workers, Young/New Farmers, and Rural Communities
Through the development of the 2023 Farm Bill, some key stakeholder groups emerged: rural and Tribal communities, farmworkers, im/migrant workers, and young and beginning farmers. Each of these groups are deeply valuable to our communities and the fabric of our country. Their voices, experiences, and expertise are critical when considering how to leverage the Farm Bill for community belonging, well-being, and equity.
The Native Farm Bill Coalition: Native Americans and First Nations peoples cultivated vast systems of sustainable agriculture, fishing, hunting, forestry, and ecological technologies for tens of thousands of years before the advent of colonization in 1492. Since then, Indigenous communities have been advocating for not only their own recognition and land rights, but for equitable systems and sustainable practices that benefit all residents of the United States. The Native Farm Bill Coalition (NFBC), formed in 2017, is the largest-ever coordinated Native American effort around federal food, agriculture, and nutrition policy. NFBC priorities include supporting Native agricultural producers, expanding tribal self-governance and Indigenous food sovereignty, and reducing barriers to implementing USDA food, nutrition, and land access programs. Supporting Indigenous priorities for the 2023 Farm Bill means supporting both Indigenous sovereignty and health equity for all communities.
Farmworkers, migrant workers, and im/migrant communities: Migrant and seasonal farmworkers have been foundational to the U.S. agriculture and food systems since the country’s beginning. Farmworkers and im/migrant communities have fought for centuries to have the same rights, protections, safety, housing, benefits, and healthcare as other U.S. workforces. Due to racist exclusions from labor policy, however, farm and migrant workers are still excluded from many of the most basic protections. These legacies, paired with COVID-19-related labor fluctuations, have culminated into today’s agricultural workforce shortages. Alongside an international supply chain weakened by COVID, war, natural disasters, and weather, U.S. shortages are directly impacting agricultural production, driving food costs higher, and limiting food access and security for U.S. families. Farm and migrant worker priorities for the Farm Bill—including protections for labor organizing, worker safety, overtime pay, healthcare, and housing—not only improve health equity for marginalized groups, but also advance public health through food justice.
Young, beginning, and historically marginalized farmers: With an average age of 58 years old, the U.S. farming population is aging and many are retiring. Young, beginning, and historically excluded farmers are eager to make the most of this shift, exploring how farming can be more accessible, inclusive, equitable, and environmentally sustainable. Their energy, however, is often met with deep-rooted systemic inequities, barriers, and limitations instead of support. The American Farmland Trust calls us to support a diverse new generation in accessing land and launching successful businesses. Farm Bill priorities for the National Young Farmers Coalition (NYFC) include supporting farmers’ mental health, access to affordable housing, racial equity, improving access to credit for young people, and urgently addressing the forces of land loss.
Rural communities: Rural communities are often most involved in agricultural production and physically located closest to farmlands. While this proximity allows for localized food systems and community cooperation when things are running smoothly, it has a double negative effect when things are not. Rural communities struggle disproportionately with food security and are often considered food deserts due to a lack of food retailers. In 2021, 87% of U.S. counties with the highest food insecurity rate were rural and 11% of rural households were food insecure. Rural communities are also frequently most impacted by climate change, extreme weather, supply chain disruptions, workforce shortages, and negative impacts of agriculture industry decline. By prioritizing rural communities’ needs in the 2023 Farm Bill, changemakers can advance critical issues impacting all communities.
Prioritizing Public Health in the 2023 Farm Bill
Every 5 years, the Farm Bill provides an opportunity to impact public health outcomes by steering equitable agriculture, environment, food, and economic policies and programs.
On an individual level, we can all support health equity in the 2023 Farm Bill through actions including:
Learn more about and share the importance of strengthening SNAP investments in the 2023 Farm Bill
Share this resource with your networks via social media, email, and/or messaging app
At the local level, communities can make an impact through actions including:
Expand support for business technical assistance, especially in rural and rural-adjacent areas
Expand healthcare and mental healthcare—including telehealth—access in rural communities
Create and support local coalitions, land trusts, food and agricultural cooperatives, and Community Supported Agriculture
Advocate for multilingualism and translation of important materials into commonly spoken languages in your area, such as Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese, Arabic, and Indigenous languages
Include farmers, farmworkers, migrant workers, and Indigenous and rural communities in conversations, programs, policies, and community assessments
At scale, systems-level impacts can be made through actions including:
Make farmland financing more affordable and accessible
Prioritize conservation, environmental health, and climate justice efforts, including clean energy priorities, rewarding farmers who transition to sustainable production practices, and agricultural practices that conserve soil, water, habitat, and energy resources
Increase access to and reduce barriers to implementing USDA programs and funding for small-scale, beginning, Native, and other historically marginalized producers
Create and expand income opportunities for small and mid-sized farms, as well as beginning, Native, and other marginalized producers
Advocate for immigration reform
- Support urban agriculture and food systems
Actively support Indigenous sovereignty and self-governance, including advocating for Indigenous rights to land, fishing, forestry, and agriculture
Improve and expand farmland and farmworker-related research, including expanding sourcing and use of agricultural, rural, and related data
To learn more about leveraging the 2023 Farm Bill to advance health equity, explore the resources and related topics below.
Serin Bond-Yancey (they/she) is a disabled, queer, multiply-neurodivergent communications and accessibility professional. They are the Senior Communications and Design Consultant at IP3, and a Staff Editor for Community Commons.
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