What will you eat? The battle for your dinner plate at the Oregon Legislature

Kyle Curtis Facebook

Currently in Salem, there is a pitched policy battle being waged, the outcome of which will determine the make-up of the food that appears on Oregonians’ dinner plate. Many Oregonians are aware of the natural bounty produced by the farmers in the fertile Willamette valley and cattle ranchers in eastern Oregon. Despite this bounty, Oregon’s farmers tend to be older as younger farmers struggle financially to earn a livelihood. Even though Oregon’s economy has a lively agricultural sector, the state ranks third on the USDA’s list of “very low food security.” In short, hunger is prevalent throughout Oregon while young farmers are dissuaded from pursuing a livelihood in tending the land.

Considering these problems that affect the production and consumption of food in Oregon, how will the state legislature address these issues in the upcoming 2011 session? There are a number of food-related bills to be debated this year. What would the effects of passage- or non-passage- of these bills be? Will the outcomes of this current legislative session be an improved roadmap for increased consumption of healthy food for all Oregonians? To answer these questions, advocates and supporters of these bills shared with a recent packed house at Holocene the current status of a few of these bills, the chances of their passing, and what their impact will be on the future of Oregonians’ meals.

HB 2222 – The Family Farmer Act The Family Farmer Act has four main provisions: to waive fees and licenses for farmers that slaughter a small number of animals; provide new farmers with a property tax cut; designate two seats on the state’s Board of Agriculture for small farmers; and expand the existing raw milk exemption up to ten grass-fed cows, allowing farmers to sell raw milk directly at their farm. The property tax cut for new farmers applies after one year of farming the land, as opposed to the three years that is currently required. The strongest opposition to this bill comes from the dairy industry, objecting to the raw milk provision. However, as the bill only increases the current raw milk exemption and requires producers to provide warning labels and sell only at their farm, the concerns that an increase in raw milk will result in illness are addressed by this legislation. After a public hearing held on February 2, HB 2222 is currently sitting in the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee.

HB 2800 – Farm to School Act A version of the Farm to School Act has been in the Oregon legislature since 2007, with various provisions being passed. This bill has sought to create two government positions in both the state Agriculture and Education Departments, as well as reimbursing school districts that purchase Oregon food products for school lunches and breakfasts and also provide grants to schools that pursue garden based education programs. The ODA and ODE positions have been created in prior years, and the current version of HB 2800 would reimburse fifteen cents per lunch and seven cents per breakfast for those school meals comprised of products that produced, packaged, and processed within the state of Oregon. Public health advocates estimate that these reimbursements would pump $100 million into Oregon’s agricultural economy, creating 477 direct jobs and a thousand indirect jobs. HB 2800 is currently sitting in the House Ways and Means Committee.

HB 2336 – Direct Marketing Bill The Direct Marketing Bill provides necessary statutory guidance for regulations of farmers markets and CSAs with a balanced approach to direct marketing. The legislation includes a provision for value-added products created by food products planted and grown by the farmer. For example, direct sales of sauerkraut would be allowed as long as the farmer grows and ferments the cabbage. HB 2336 is being opposed by the Northwest Farm Bureau and Farm Processors, who testified at the recent public hearing in Salem. “They’re good,” said Anthony Boutard, owner of Ayers Creek Farm and a main advocate for HB 2336. “They don’t bring any facts to the table, but instead get the legislators glassy-eyed and drooling. Once they’re drooling, you’ve lost them.” Despite Boutard’s concern, the bill was passed out the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee by a bipartisan 6-2 vote, with a House floor vote scheduled for Feb. 16th.

HB 2975 – Increase funding for WIC (Women, Infant, and Children) vouchers HB 2976 – Increase funding for seniors SNAP vouchers These two bills were introduced by Robin Johnson from Partners for a Hunger Free Oregon, who explained that in 2010 various farm direct programs provided $1.3 million of federal and state funds to the 600 Oregon farms that accepted these vouchers. However, given the current belt-tightening climate in Salem, legislators are seeking to cut all of the state’s contribution of these funds, a saving of $275,000. The state funds cover administration of the federal funds, and if cut would jeopardize the other million dollars in federal funding. Partners for a Hunger Free Oregon believe that not only should this state funding be kept, but also increased so that “…everyone in Oregon, regardless of background, should have access to Oregon’s bounty.” HB 2975 would increase WIC funding by 18% to $300,000 and HB 2976 would increase Senior SNAP funding by 36% to $100,000. Both bills currently sit in the House Ways and Means Committee.

These are just a handful of the numerous food-related bills to be considered by the current legislature. There are numerous other bills that will also impact the contents of Oregonians’ plates and their stomachs. A comprehensive list of these bills can be accessed at the Oregon Grows website. This legislative session is shaping up to have a far-reaching impact on the contents of Oregonians’ plates as well as their stomachs like few other sessions in recent history. For Oregonians who are eaters, the outcomes of this legislative session could be very beneficial indeed.

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