Bills, Bills, Bills: Nine pieces of legislation that could push the Farm Bill in the right direction

Bills, Bills, Bills: Nine pieces of legislation that could push the Farm Bill in the right direction

By Ashley Fent, Campaigns Researcher

As part of the farm bill process, members of Congress introduce “marker bills” to try to get provisions included into the larger bill. We do not expect Congress to pass marker bills as standalone bills – they are often not politically feasible to pass on their own. But they do get people talking and help build momentum for policies that should be included in the larger (“omnibus”) bill. Marker bills are also an opportunity for advocacy, enabling community groups and legislators to work together to address issues that impact our food system and our lives. 

As part of our work on the 2023 Farm Bill, HEAL has been working to get more legislators to co-sponsor the marker bills we’ve endorsed. We believe the provisions in these bills would make a big impact on getting our priorities included in the Farm Bill. 

There are many exciting bills on the table this year, but with limited resources, we can only prioritize a handful of them in our own advocacy work. Here’s more about the bills we’re endorsing:

1. Protecting America’s Meatpacking Workers Act (to provide essential protections to meatpacking workers)

In 2021, building on long-standing worker justice campaigns, Food Chain Workers Alliance, Public Justice, Rural Community Workers Alliance, Venceremos, and HEAL Food Alliance worked with Senator Cory Booker’s office to draft the Protecting America’s Meatpacking Workers Act (PAMWA). 

Meatpacking is one of the most exploitative industries in the country. For decades, people who work in this industry, who are mostly rural, immigrants, and people of color, have endured dangerous work conditions and retaliation when they speak out. 

The USDA currently allows some meatpacking plants to increase their line speeds. PAMWA would mandate an assessment about the impacts of any line speed increase on worker health and safety. It would ensure more regular and thorough safety inspections, better reporting systems, and the development of stronger standards to protect workers from hazards and occupational injuries. Additionally, PAMWA provides measures to allow working people to speak out about labor abuses without fear of retaliation. And it tackles the structures that have made meatpacking corporations overly powerful, by bolstering the Packers and Stockyards Act, cracking down on monopolistic practices, and channeling more resources to small and regional processing plants with fair labor standards. It also calls for a Government Accountability Office report on racism in the system. 

This bill was introduced by Senators Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, Richard Blumenthal, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Brian Schatz in the Senate and by Representatives Ro Khanna, Eleanor Holmes Norton, Donald Payne, Jr., Raúl Grijalva, Jahana Hayes, and Barbara Lee in the House. It addresses HEAL’s priorities on labor and on cracking down on corporate control. Like the next two bills on this list, it would set an important precedent for including protections for food and farm workers in the farm bill, building toward our long-term goal of getting a labor title added to the farm bill.

  • Read more about PAMWA from HEAL Food Alliance and Food Chain Workers Alliance’s factsheet!

2. Fairness for Farm Workers Act (to mandate overtime pay for farmworkers)

In the 1930s, lawmakers excluded jobs held by formerly enslaved peoples from New Deal programs and legislation. This included the farm bill and labor laws like the National Labor Relations Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act. As a result, farmworkers are still denied rights that many of us take for granted, including overtime pay, the federal minimum wage, the right to organize, and child labor protections.

This bill would gradually implement overtime pay for farmworkers over the next four years, with the goal of increasing equity in the trillion-dollar agricultural industry. It would remove exemptions for agriculture overall, as well as for certain categories of farm labor, including non-local minors, small farms, and range livestock production, and employment outside of the farm gate, including in irrigation projects, grain elevators, and processing facilities.

This bill was introduced by Senators Alex Padilla, Dianne Feinstein, Elizabeth Warren, Richard Blumenthal, Cory Booker, Bernie Sanders, Catherine Cortez Masto, Ron Wyden, Chris Van Hollen, Amy Klobuchar, Sherrod Brown, Ed Markey, and Bob Menendez in the Senate and by Congressman Raúl Grijalva in the House. It advances HEAL’s demands on labor in the farm bill.

3. Supporting our Farm and Food System Workforce Act (to create a USDA office dedicated to addressing worker issues)

The food industry is the largest private sector employer in the country, employing over 21.5 million people. Yet abuse and exploitation are rampant. The 80% of food industry workers who work in frontline positions face low wages, high rates of food insecurity, and limited labor protections. Farmworkers — the majority of whom are foreign-born, mostly Latine or Indigenous to Latin America — confront especially dangerous (and sometimes fatal)  working conditions. 

The Supporting Our Farm and Food System Workforce Act aims to create a new USDA Office of the Farm and Food System Workforce. This office would provide more opportunities for working people to raise their concerns and interests within USDA, develop recommendations and new initiatives to support workers, and release public reports about its efforts to improve working conditions and livelihoods. The bill would also create an advisory committee composed of key stakeholders, including farm and food system workers, labor unions, and civil rights advocates (among others), and an interagency council of representatives from various federal agencies to improve coordination and planning.

This bill was introduced by Senators Alex Padilla, Sherrod Brown, Kirsten Gillibrand, Elizabeth Warren, Peter Welch, Ron Wyden, and Dianne Feinstein. It aligns with HEAL’s priorities on labor in the farm bill.

4. Justice for Black Farmers Act (to address USDA’s long-standing discrimination against Black farmers)

Between 1910 and the late 1990s, hundreds of thousands of Black farmers lost their land, as a result of discriminatory lending by the USDA and private lenders, violence and intimidation by white people, and a lack of legal recognition for heirs’ property (land inherited without a formal property title or will). By 1997, the number of Black farmers had experienced a decrease of 98 percent. This massive dispossession transferred more than $326 billion in land assets from Black families to white families – not to mention the toll on Black families’ cultural continuities, foodways, and well-being. Black farmers now hold only 0.5% of all farmland in the US and still face the legacies and current realities of debt and discrimination.

The Justice for Black Farmers Act (J4BF) is designed to keep Black farmers on their land and increase opportunities for new and aspiring Black farmers. It includes:

  • USDA reforms: J4BF introduces critical reforms in the U.S. Department of Agriculture to end discrimination and increase oversight on civil rights issues, including through the creation of an independent civil rights oversight board and an equity commission.
  • Debt relief: J4BF increases funding support for people navigating heirs’ property recognition and farming cooperatives. It would create a new bank for Black growers’ cooperative financial institutions. And it would forgive the debt of farmers who won the Pigford v. Glickman lawsuit against USDA
  • Land access: J4BF creates a land grant program to transfer up to 160 acres to existing and aspiring Black farmers and provides USDA funding to support them. 
  • Training and technical assistance: J4BF provides more resources to historically Black colleges and universities, as well as NGOs serving Black farmers. It also creates a conservation corps to help young and aspiring farmers and ranchers that USDA categorizes as “socially disadvantaged” gain experience.* 
  • Fair competition: J4BF would reform and strengthen the Packers and Stockyards Act to put an end to abusive and anticompetitive practices by big meatpacking corporations. This will allow new and existing Black farmers to have a real chance to succeed and thrive, while also benefiting all small-scale family farmers across the country.

This bill is led by Senator Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, Tina Smith, Reverend Raphael Warnock, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and Richard Blumenthal in the Senate and by Congresswoman Alma Adams in the House. It advances HEAL’s demands for increased support for BIPOC producers, cracking down on corporate consolidation, and promoting regenerative farming that supports a healthier environment and climate.

*Socially disadvantaged producers is a category that USDA uses. In some cases it refers only to farmers and ranchers of color and in other cases it includes women. HEAL does not endorse this term.

5. Fair Credit for Farmers Act (to improve the farm credit system)

Most family farmers depend on agricultural credit to keep their farms going. For many farmers it can be hard to get loans from commercial banks – especially without formal titles or collateral (like in the case of Black farmers holding heirs’ property) or with existing debt. In these cases, the Farm Service Agency (FSA), a public agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is the only option for loans. But even at FSA, farmers (especially farmers of color) face predatory lending practices, discrimination, and an extractive relationship with lenders. 

The Fair Credit for Farmers Act would increase basic borrower protections, improve institutional oversight, and include flexible lending terms for FSA loans. 

This bill is led by Senators Kirsten Gillibrand and John Fetterman in the Senate and by Congresswoman Alma Adams in the House. It addresses HEAL’s demands for increased support for BIPOC producers and particularly for credit justice.

  • Read RAFI and NFFC’s factsheet for more info on the Fair Credit for Farmers Act.

6. Increasing Land Access, Security, and Opportunities Act (to expand the Increasing Land, Capital, and Market Access Program)

Right now, too many existing and aspiring farmers, especially BIPOC farmers, are struggling to access or retain land. This is in large part due to a long history of institutional racism by the USDA and, more broadly, by systemic racism. The issue has been worsened by the corporate squeeze on independent and family farmers. 

In 2022, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) launched a program to support underserved producers through the Increasing Land, Capital and Market Access Program. The Increasing Land Access, Security and Opportunities Act expands this program, authorizing $500 million for the next five years and increasing pathways for funding to reach young and beginning farmers and shellfish producers. It would make funding available to help growers acquiring land or make improvements and to entities supporting underserved farmers’ access to land, capital, and markets. And it would ensure that the program prioritizes direct financial assistance to farmers and collaborative partnerships. 

This bill is led by Senator Tina Smith in the Senate and by Representatives Nikki Budzinski, Zach Nunn, Joe Courtney, and Abigail Spanberger in the House. It advances HEAL’s demands for more support for BIPOC producers, especially through land access.

7. Closing the Meal Gap Act (to expand SNAP)

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) helps over 40 million people across the country afford groceries. But the dollar amounts of SNAP benefits are based on the insufficient and restrictive Thrifty Food Plan. Because of this, about 40% of households who participate in SNAP still aren’t able to get the food that they need. And many people who need SNAP benefits are currently ineligible because of restrictions on students, formerly incarcerated people, those who are not working, those living in US territories, and more. 

The Closing the Meal Gap Act would raise the baseline benefit for all SNAP households, basing it on a more realistic household budget. It would also provide extra to those with large medical and housing expenses. And it would address additional barriers that people face in accessing SNAP, including eliminating time limits on benefits for those struggling to find work and expanding the SNAP program to Puerto Rico.

This bill is led by Senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Peter Welch in the Senate, and by Representatives Alma Adams, Nydia Velázquez, Barbara Lee, Jahana Hayes, and Summer Lee in the House. It addresses HEAL’s priorities on expanding nutrition programs that ensure all people can get the food they need.

8. Equitable and Values-Aligned Procurement at USDA Act (to ensure that USDA’s food purchasing policies advance equity and sustainability)

With the other members of the Federal Good Food Purchasing Coalition, HEAL has been helping to draft a bill that would move USDA toward values-aligned food purchasing.  

The federal government is a major food purchaser, with USDA alone buying billions of dollars worth of food each year. Changing USDA’s purchasing practices could have an enormous impact in moving toward a more just and healthy food system, by providing needed support for values-aligned producers and local and regional food economies and by persuading other government agencies and non-governmental institutions to follow suit in their own purchasing standards. 

The Equitable and Values-Aligned Procurement at USDA Act would require USDA to prioritize values-aligned producers in its food purchasing agreements. The bill requires USDA to prioritize purchases of food from beginning and/or BIPOC growers, from producers who support diversified and resilient supply chains, from growers who use organic or regenerative farming practices, and from producers who ensure workers’ well-being (including through collective bargaining agreements and labor unions). 

This bill is led by Senator Ed Markey and is still in development. It addresses HEAL’s priorities on labor, increasing opportunities for BIPOC producers, supporting communities rather than corporations, and promoting practices that help the climate and environment.

  • Read more about equitable public procurement policies and their successes in state and city governments on the Federal Good Food Purchasing Coalition website and the Good Food Communities Campaign website

9. Supporting Urban and Innovative Farming Act (to increase funding for urban and suburban farmers)

Small- and micro-scale farming is increasing in urban and suburban areas. For many people – especially for people of color whose neighborhoods and diets have been affected by food apartheid – growing produce is an important way to access nutritious and culturally important foods. This bill would improve the Office of Urban Agriculture and Innovative Production, increase research and programmatic funding support for urban and suburban farmers, and support communities in developing composting and food waste initiatives. 

This bill was introduced by Senators John Fetterman, Sherrod Brown, Ron Wyden, Bob Casey, Ed Markey, Chris Van Hollen, and Ben Ray Luján. It addresses HEAL’s priorities around climate and the environment and could dovetail with our priorities around nutrition, investing in communities not corporations, and supporting BIPOC producers.

*Photo credit for header photo: Jam Rose & Rion Moon