On September 7, 2017, Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur (OH-09) introduced legislation entitled the Urban Agriculture Production Act of 2017 (H.R. 3699). The bill would “promote and enhance” urban agricultural practices and provide assistance for organizations and individuals looking to create or expand urban agriculture projects in their communities.
Why Does the Bill Matter?
Urban agriculture is a response to the growing disparity in access to fresh, nutritious foods. In particular, urban agriculture can expand healthy food access to communities situated in “food deserts”, a USDA term that identifies areas “vapid of fresh fruit, vegetables, and other healthful whole foods” usually due to “a lack of grocery stores, farmers’ markets, and healthy food providers.”
More and more residents of urban neighborhoods find themselves located in areas without supermarkets, something many Americans take for granted. Left without other options, many individuals resort to fast food or other unhealthy options. This increases health problems concentrated in these food deserts.
Part of the solution may literally be in our own backyards. Undeveloped or vacant land in our nation’s cities can be suitable to cultivate both food and non-food agricultural products. Making use of otherwise empty land provides a practical option to increase access of local, nutritious and culturally-appropriate food in underserved communities.
What Does the Bill Do?
The Act would require that the Secretary of Agriculture establish urban agriculture outreach programs and award grants to support activities such as urban agriculture infrastructure, land acquisition and conversion, education and training programs, and technical and financial assistance to producers in urban areas.
Eligible grant recipients—socially disadvantaged and historically underserved farmers—will receive logistical support from an “Urban Agricultural Liaison.” The Secretary will also award grants for scientific and community-based participatory research that promotes the efficiency of urban agriculture and sustainable methods that will enhance the productivity of urban agriculture.
Grantees would be able to begin production of food, non-food plants, and animal operations where space provides. These operations include chicken coops, beehives, hydroponic and aquaponics facilities, and rooftop, vertical, and indoor farms. Land that was once vacant, or lands either currently plagued or comprised of a brownfield site will also be eligible for further government assistance to ensure that the site is viable for healthy food production.
At the core of the proposed bill lies Section 7, which contains a variety of amendments to existing programs. Section 7 improves funding for farmers markets and community food projects with an emphasis on serving communities located in USDA-define food deserts. Most notably, it directs the USDA to give prioritize underserved communities when making certain grants and loans, and allocates $10 million toward that end.
In addition, the Act amends the Seniors Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program to include low-income veterans. And requires that seventy percent of program funds support low-income seniors with the remaining thirty percent allocated specifically for low-income veterans.
Section 7 also expands the scope of community food projects to include urban agricultural initiatives. Existing law limits eligibility for community food project funding to one-time infusions. Subsection (c) removes that requirement, and increases funding for community food projects from $9 million to $10 million per year. Perhaps most importantly, the bill amends the Community Facilities Direct Loan and Grant Program to include urban farmers and ranchers as an eligible group, making them eligible for funding.
Taken together, the Act’s provisions would bolster food production in underserved urban communities. Many urban agriculture operations already provide successful models. For example, many urban farms are open to ex-convicts who want to reintegrate and gain skills to benefit their respective communities. Furthermore, something as simple as having a secure source of fresh, healthy foods has provided a new sense of purpose to communities where urban farmer’s markets are available. Urban agriculture has the potential to dress the wounds of disconnect between daily urban life, health outcomes, and food production.
Long Road Ahead
Although its proponents have characterized the bill as bipartisan, the facts tell a different story. Besides the main sponsor of the bill, Rep. Kaptur (D-OH), there are eleven other co-sponsors. However, the only Republican is Don Young (R-AK). Furthermore, none of the co-sponsors sit on the House Committee on Agriculture.
At this point, the bill’s fate rests ominously in the hands of the Republican majority membership that does not appear to support it. Whether or not this bill survives the committee is contingent on Republican support. Supporters of the bill should be calling their Republican representatives and urging them to sign on to the Urban Agriculture Production Act of 2017.