Rep. Earl Blumenauer solicits Multnomah County input for farm bill reform

February 13, 2017

What would the future of food policy look like if Multnomah County were in charge of writing the expansive federal Farm Bill?

Would there be more provisions to help families get access to healthy food? Would it include goals for equity, sustainability and nutrition?

Those are questions Rep. Earl Blumenauer challenged Multnomah County staff and officials to consider when he visited the county this month.

“Essentially, I want to issue an invitation to you,” Blumenauer said. “What do you want in a farm bill?”

Blumenauer met with Multnomah County Commissioner Sharon Meieran, the chiefs of staff from the offices of commissioners Jessica Vega Pederson and Lori Stegmann, the directors of the Department of County Human Services and the Office of Sustainability and employees from DCHS and the Health Department as part of his “Sing Your Own Farm Bill” project. The stakeholder outreach program is intended to gather ideas about the state’s priorities for a new federal farm bill.

Multnomah County Commissioner Sharon Meieran discusses food policy with Rep. Earl Blumenauer.

The farm bill, the federal government’s primary tool for setting agricultural and food policy, is re-authorized every five years and set to expire in 2018. The bill has wide-ranging impacts, including on trade, food safety and transportation.

Blumenauer said he wanted Multnomah County staff to share ideas on how the bill could be amended to better support the state’s varied needs before when it is re-authorized.

“This bill is voluminous and it touches on lots of areas,” Blumenauer said. “When I think of some of the creativity I’ve seen in the past at the county, in terms of digging in and leveraging resources, I hope we can take this massive bill and wage an assault on it and say ‘what’s here that could be a part of the county’s mission?’”

As part of its mission, Multnomah County partners with community organizations, businesses and other interested parties to promote a more sustainable, equitable and healthy local food system.

Multnomah County Food Policy Coordinator Robyn Johnson

One opportunity to further this work through the farm bill is by expanding employment and training programs for SNAP benefits recipients, DCHS Director Liesl Wendt said. SNAP provides nutrition assistance to low-income individuals and families. The county’s SNAP employment and training program could reach many more people if it weren’t so expensive to operate, Wendt said.

“The potential is there… But smaller, culturally specific providers can’t access it because of how much it costs to administer,” Wendt said. “We need to think creatively about how to reduce the administrative side and make it easier for people to access the program.”

Other suggestions were that the bill include provisions to expand hours at offices that authorize SNAP benefits to make them accessible to working families and to change the rules around work requirements so that more students can participate in the program.

Blumenauer said the meeting was the first of several he intends to have with Multnomah County staff and officials and other stakeholders in the county before the farm bill comes up for reauthorization. He said he’d also like to see the bill tackle topics like healthy eating, including subsidizing producers of healthful options.

Department of County Human Services Director Liesl Wendt said food policy reform should include lowering administrative costs for program operators.

“I am hopeful that there is an opportunity to do some serious conversations around sugar,” Blumenauer said. “There are opportunities to have other avenues for nutrition, policies that promote healthy eating and nutrition.”