How Food Industry Workers Want To Modernize The Farm Bill

Food & Drink

Every five years, the Farm Bill comes up for renewal. Originally devised during the New Deal, the Farm Bill was intended to keep food plentiful and priced fairly, to keep farmers on the land and to keep the land healthy. Over the decades, much of the Farm Bill has evolved into a crutch for chemical-dependent monocultures like GMO corn and soy, while excluding the most vital members of the food system, including food chain and farm workers and small, diversified growers.

HEAL Food Alliance is a food worker-led organization that intends to bring the Farm Bill into the 21st century. We spoke to Navina Khanna, Executive Director and a co-founder of HEAL about their vision to transform and modernize the Farm Bill.

Errol Schweizer: Could you give us a quick background on what your organization does?

Navina Khanna: HEAL stands for health, environment, agriculture and labor. We’re an alliance of 43 organizations around the country that are working on different aspects of our food system. We work together to build our collective power and to transform our food and farm systems, organizing together through campaigns and really investing in the relationships, in the work and the movement building that it takes for us to shift narratives, shift policy, shift culture for the kind of food system that we all want and need.

ES: What is the Farm Bill and why should everyone be interested in it?

NK: The key thing to know is that the Farm Bill is the biggest piece of legislation that shapes food policy in this country. It’s typically renewed every five years or so. It’s a several hundred billion dollar piece of legislation, and it covers everything from what gets grown and how much farmers get in order to grow it, to what kinds of environmental protections are included, to authorizing things like food stamps or EBT/SNAP.

And the Farm Bill has been around for almost 100 years. But for the most part, the Farm Bill really props up corporate control of our food system and the systems of industrial agriculture that include overuse of inputs like synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. There’s also some things that the Farm Bill has always excluded. And those are some of the things that we’re fighting for. The Farm Bill, for example, has never included labor as part of it, even though there’s 21.5 million people who work in our food system, who hold 5 of the 8 worst paying jobs, and is our biggest economic sector in this country. We believe that it’s essential that those workers be included in such an omnibus piece of legislation that guides our food and farm system.

We have five main priorities that we’re focused on. One is about labor and ensuring that workers are included in the farm bill. The second is about support for BIPOC producers and making sure that they have what they need in order to thrive. We’re of course focused on making sure that communities have access to enough nourishing food through SNAP/food stamps. We focus fourth on community control over corporate control. So taking away some of the supports for the ever shrinking number of corporations that control our food system. And finally, focusing on ecosystems and the environment and ensuring that this Farm Bill is actually a climate bill. We know that any major piece of legislation at this point cannot also be considering climate. And when we know that our food and farm systems have such big impacts on climate change and so much potential to solve for climate change, there’s no reason for that not to be so much of the foundation of how this bill is written.

ES: Can we talk a little bit about how farm and food system labor has never really been addressed in the farm bill? The food system doesn’t exist without the people working in it every day. What are some of the things that you are asking for around labor policy or programs?

NK: So we recognize that there are some things that are out of USDA jurisdiction. But there are so many aspects of what happens with food and farm labor that are under USDA jurisdiction or could be, if we were thinking more comprehensively around what it meant to expand and equalize labor laws.

There are some specific things, like, for example, USDA determines whether or not meat processing plants can increase the line speeds. So what that means is the speed at which the line is going, where folks are making cuts to poultry or to hogs or whatever. It’s repetitive motion that folks are doing many, many times per minute. And the handful of corporations that govern our meat industry are always pushing to increase that line speed, which causes repetitive stress injuries for workers. It forces workers to not be able to take things like bathroom breaks. Meat packing is considered one of the most dangerous jobs in the country. There’s a report that just came out a couple of years ago that really identified the dangers there. And there’s a bill that was introduced, during peak pandemic when we were seeing so many of the issues with the meatpacking plants, called the Protecting America’s Meat Workers Act. And so we’re using that as a marker bill that can get used to help shape the Farm Bill and basically regulate not only the speed at which the lines are going in the meat processing industry, but also ensuring that there’s enough oversight over that and there’s adequate staffing for it.

And that’s all within USDA jurisdiction to do that and could be written into the Farm Bill, things like climate protections for farmworkers who are experiencing extreme heat stress, in many places are forced to work under wildfire smoke conditions or are in no way compensated after there’s a storm that destroys their livelihood. Right now, farm owners have access to insurance and other things that protect them when there are climate catastrophes. But workers don’t have access to those same resources. Other things that we are looking for this next Farm Bill to include are a multilingual alert system that lets workers know when the conditions are unsafe to work and that there is support for them when conditions are too extreme or dangerous and people need to evacuate in the case of a wildfire or whatever else. So those are within the purview of USDA and we think could very much be a part of this upcoming Farm Bill if those that govern are willing to take action that’s necessary.

ES: Why do we even need a Farm Bill?

NK: The Farm Bill has potential to actually resource BIPOC producers and resource growers who are trying to do the right thing, whether that’s in terms of how they support their workers or how they treat the environment. There’s a lot of potential for hundreds of billions of dollars of federal resources through this bill to go towards things that are aligned with our values. So historically, the Farm Bill has included nutrition programs like SNAP and it’s included the Farm Support Program. And during the last Farm Bill cycle in 2018, conservatives actually tried to split those apart and say, “let’s only support the farm things through the Farm Bill. The Farm Bill shouldn’t deal with nutrition programs, it shouldn’t deal with supporting communities”. And the danger there is, if we just think geographically and we think about where the most conservative states are, who holds power in our agricultural committees and so on, those are the states that have big agriculture at the helm. And so if we split the bill, then we are most likely to have a Farm Bill that continues to support big agriculture, that continues to support just a small handful of folks, and that doesn’t account for the needs of so many of our communities, whether that’s through the food programs like SNAP/EBT, or whether that’s through the kind of support that’s needed for a much more diverse farming culture that includes Black, Indigenous, people of color producers. That includes the kinds of conservation measures that folks have been using. That includes traditional ecological knowledge. The Farm Bill isn’t the be-all, end-all and these are the priorities that we’re going to keep fighting for and we’re going to keep creating solutions around, no matter what the political arena is. The Farm Bill is just one avenue for that.

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