If you’ve noticed more farmers markets around in recent years, you aren’t imagining things -- local farmers markets in the U.S. doubled from 2,863 in 2000 to 6,132 in 2010 and over 100,000 farmers are selling their products to customers directly. So says an eye-opening report released this month by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) entitled Market Forces: Creating Jobs through Public Investment in Local and Regional Food Systems. The report shows that moderate assistance from the federal government would go a long way in helping grow and maintain vibrant, economically stable local and regional food systems.
This proliferation was not bolstered by federal spending. In fact, the report states quite the opposite, that USDA invested $13.7 billion on commodity, crop insurance and supplemental disaster assistance payments that aided big industrial farms. When it came to local and regional food system farmers, however, they spent less than $100 million.
The report uses 2007 USDA data to explain that sales directly between farmers and consumers are encouraging and came to a total of being a $1.2 billion per year enterprise – with the majority of that cash redistributing itself locally. If that be the case, local farmers markets keep money in the neighborhood: help the local farmers, help their communities.
Jeffrey O’Hara, the report’s author and an economist for the UCS Food and Environment Program, stated in a recent press statement, “On the whole, farmers markets have seen exceptional growth, providing local communities with fresh food direct from the farm. But our federal food policies are working against them. If the U.S. government diverted just a small amount of the massive subsidies it lavishes on industrial agriculture to support these markets and small local farmers, it would not only improve American diets, it would generate tens of thousands of new jobs.”
With job creation being such a buzz phrase these days used frequently by politicians under fire in a sinking economy, the report offers Congress some useful recommendations in how to address just that. Not only does it highlight major challenges faced by local and regional food systems, but the report proposes public policies that will support their long term growth in the next Farm Bill.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack requested that Congress set a target of 100,000 new farmers for the 2012 Farm Bill with investments in farmer training programs and farmers markets subsidies. O’Hara’s report claims that the growth of local and regional food systems will indeed help Congress to reach that objective. Thus, one action he urges is the reauthorization of USDA’s Farmers Market Promotion Program (FMPP), which is capable of generating up to 13,500 jobs over the course of five years, by way of the government financing 100-500 farmers markets per year.
The report also calls for policy that builds infrastructure for rural farmers by directing some spending toward dairy-bottling and meat-processing facilities which would allow farmers to more proficiently bring those products to market. This would also potentially bring about employment opportunities, more consumer options at market and could cultivate healthy market competition.
Another main policy push in the report advocates for permitting low-income residents to redeem food nutrition subsidies at local food markets in order to provide them access to healthy, fresh produce. This is proposed because many markets do not allow people to use their Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits.
Lesley Lammers is a freelance sustainability consultant and journalist, focused on the intersection between the environment, food, social impact, human rights, health and entrepreneurship.