Expand Support for Regional Food Economies

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Expand Support for Regional Food Economies

Both consumer demand for local food and the interest of new and established farmers in producing it have skyrocketed in the last decade, but the supply is still often limited by the lack of physical processing infrastructure. Many local and regional canneries, slaughterhouses, butchers, dairies, and similar food processors closed in the 1980s and 1990s, eliminating a critical part of a local food system. Investment in building or rebuilding this infrastructure has significant economic benefits, supporting local farmers and creating jobs.

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Meat Processing

While meat processing is regulated at the federal level, there is a great deal that states can do. In 27 states, the state departments of agriculture have the authority to inspect meat processing facilities, rather than requiring inspection by USDA, as in the remaining states. Meat processed at state-inspected facilities may be sold within the state. States with these programs can ensure that they are robust and well-funded; they may also apply for the Cooperative Interstate Shipment (CIS) program, which allows meat from state-inspected plants to be sold in other states. Labor can be a major sticking point for developing processing capacity. Some community colleges, high schools, and other institutions are investing in vocational programs to train workers in the skills that a small meat processing plant requires.

Cottage Food and Food Hubs

To support the interest and economic potential of local food economies, many states updated their cottage food laws in recent years to allow home cooks and bakers to sell homemade products. Another route is public investment in community commercial kitchens that are available for local food producers to make their food products. These are often developed by a nonprofit, with collaboration from local and regional governments and businesses. USDA grants can be a key to getting the facilities built. State funding can play a role too.

Food hubs can be another key element of developing and strengthening local food systems. As with commercial kitchens, development of a food hub is not generally driven by a state initiative, but it can be supported and funded by state action. For example, a Georgia state senator was able to direct state funds to a new food hub in a predominantly Black rural Georgia county by working closely with local community members. There is also an opportunity for states to earmark federal dollars, such as from the COVID-19 relief or infrastructure packages, for local food infrastructure.

Food policy councils or advisory boards can help to coordinate efforts across agencies and between states and the federal government, which can bolster sustainable agriculture and food networks across the country. States can significantly increase demand for local food through procurement policies, whether directly through procurement requirements by state-run agencies or incentives for institutions run by other entities.

SNAP and EBT

Another way that states are expanding access to local food is through increasing use of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) funds through Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards used at farmers markets. SNAP benefits are paid for entirely by federal funds, though administrative costs are shared equally between the federal and state governments. States must appropriate funds to establish and administer programs to accept EBT at farmers markets. These authorizations and appropriations often must be extended in order to maintain the program; some states have failed to do so and have lost the ability to accept EBT at markets. At least 29 states have a version of Double Up Food Bucks, a 2-for-1 farmers market matching program for produce started by the Michigan-based Fair Food Network and now adopted and adapted around the country.

Policy Priorities

  1. Federal: Increase the budget tenfold for existing programs that support local and regional food systems, and establish priority community set-asides. Programs like the Local Agriculture Marketing Program (LAMP), small-scale meat processing grants, and community food system projects are critical investments for food system resilience and are severely underfunded. Additionally, funds are often distributed by competitive grants, forcing those with little grant-writing experience but high levels of need to compete with organizations that have much more capacity. Priority areas are crucial for ensuring that historically underserved communities share in the opportunity.

    The American Rescue Act Funded $4 billion to bring food prices down, and help family farmers and small businesses feed their neighbors. This investment empowers local businesses to compete in the meat processing sector against the giant multinational corporations that dominate the industry and helps local schools purchase local food.make the American food system more resilient. The Biden Administration has utilized those resources to promote competition in the meat processing sector, expand grants to fund local food system development, supplement school and institution purchasing of local food, and much more outlined in USDA’s Framework.

  2. State: Create food policy councils or advisory boards to coordinate and oversee regional food economy efforts.

  3. State: Establish benchmarks for local procurement.

  4. State: Increase use of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) at farmers markets.

  5. State: Supplement and match spending of low-income consumers at farmers markets. 

  6. State: Invest in local meat processing infrastructure.

  7. State: Update cottage food laws. 

  8. State: Invest in food hubs.

State Examples

  • States without a state inspection program can consider legislation to create one, as Arkansas (2021 AR HB 1315) recently did and Massachusetts (2021 MA HB 3926) is considering.

  • Pursuing a multipronged strategy to improve meat processing for its ranchers, Wyoming (2021 WY HB 54) directed a council to expand the state’s meat processing infrastructure in a variety of ways, and also passed a “herd share” law (2020 WY HB 155), which allows ranchers to sell shares of an animal or herd to shareholders who receive cuts of meat when the animals are processed, without the need for USDA-inspected slaughter. Vermont has a similar herd share law (Vt. Stat. Ann. tit. 6, § 3311a).

  • Butchering training programs like in Iowa, Montana, and Arizona, can be developed in partnership with state agencies and funding.

  • Connecticut (2015 CT HB 5027) recently updated its cottage food laws.

  • States like California (2021 CA AB 1144), Illinois (2021 IL SB 2007), and Florida (2021 FL HB 663) that have existing cottage food laws have recently expanded or clarified them in light of the increased interest in this kind of small business.

  • A bill enacted in Utah (2021 UT HB 94) granted authority to local health departments to license and regulate what the bills calls “microenterprise home kitchens.”

  • California (2021 CA AB 1009) enacted legislation to establish the Farm to Community Food Hub program. Hawaii (2021 HI SB 338) lawmakers have introduced legislation to establish a five-year food hub pilot program, which would increase local food access and provide grant funding for applicants wishing to establish or expand a food hub.

  • Massachusetts set aside part of its American Rescue Plan funding for municipalities to invest in infrastructure including food hubs.

  • Maryland (2021 MD SB 723) is one of the newest states to consider legislation to create a state food council, particularly in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

  • California (2021 CA AB 778) and Hawaii (2021 HI SB 1251) have made efforts to establish benchmarks for procurement of local products in schools; New York (2018 NY SB 7503/AB 9503) did the same through its budget process. New York’s budget also incentivized the benchmark by offering a higher school lunch reimbursement rate for districts that sourced 30 percent local food.

  • Maine’s (2018 ME LD 1584) comprehensive local foods economy bill increased access and consumption of local foods by expanding use of SNAP funds at farmers markets.

  • Oregon (2019 OR HB 2579) expanded the farm-to-school grant program. Michigan (2019 MI SB 927) expanded their 10 cents per meal program to reimburse schools for local food purchasing, and Hawaii (2021 HI SB 1316) has legislation to establish an agricultural production tax credit for growers who produce at least 50 percent of food crops for local consumption.

  • There are also opportunities in local procurement policy to increase farmer equity, such as a 2021 Illinois bill (2021 IL HB 3089) that would have required that 20 percent of state-purchased food come from local socially disadvantaged farmers.

  • In Oregon (2019 OR SB 727), legislators partnered with advocates to propose an appropriation of state funds to expand their Double Up Food Bucks program. Using COVID-19 as an impetus, Hawaii (2021 HI SB 512) expanded their Double Up Food Bucks program past the $10 matched limit; this is just one of many ways the program can be adapted.