Guest Commentary: Budget Misses the Mark for State’s Farmers and Families
By Joan Norman and Michael J. Wilson
Gov. Larry Hogan recently released his 2019 budget, which his office touts as making “prudent investments.” Unfortunately, the governor’s proposal left out funding for the Farms and Families Act, a new grant program to support a public-private partnership that is a win for Maryland’s family farmers and our food insecure neighbors.
In today’s polarized political climate, it is rare to find opportunities that bring folks together, not only across the aisle, but also across urban, rural and suburban communities, as well as producers and consumers. The Maryland Farms and Families Act does just that.
Passed unanimously during Maryland’s 2017 legislative session and signed into law by Gov. Hogan in May, the grant program would help match farmers market purchases made using federal nutrition benefits such as SNAP or WIC. The goal of the legislation is to help both local farmers and our neighbors eligible for food assistance. But it needs funding to work.
When the bill initially passed last year, no funding was allocated for the program. Instead, the General Assembly left that to the governor’s discretion. Advocates hoped that Gov. Hogan would include a modest amount of money in the nearly $18 billion state budget this year. Unfortunately, the proposed budget for the 2019 fiscal year included nothing – zero, zip, zilch.
Funding is urgently needed to support the many Maryland families struggling to put enough food on the table. The numbers are stark. One in eight Marylanders lack reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food; 744,000 Marylanders utilized SNAP benefits in 2016, nearly two-thirds of whom were families with children. Matching dollar programs also acknowledge the inadequacy of the programs, as many families struggle to make it to the end of the month.
Matching farmers market purchases by low-income families has been proven throughout the country to fight food insecurity and improve health outcomes. In California, the state allocated $3 million in matching funding for farmers markets, recognizing the important benefits for their farmers and struggling families. In fact, these “double bucks” programs were trail-blazed right here in Maryland in 2007 by the Crossroads Farmers Market in Takoma Park.
Double bucks incentive programs don’t just support low-income families, they also directly invest in local farmers, a profession known for slim profit margins and precarious outcomes. Making funding available to the 144 farmers markets in our state through such matching programs could bring additional customers to shop, providing farmers with more income. The agriculture community has played a crucial role in Maryland’s history — and this program will help ensure its importance and viability in the future.
The beauty of the Farms and Families Act is that it has exponential impacts, not just for local farmers and food-insecure families, but also for our state’s economy. By incentivizing the use of federal food assistance dollars at farmers markets, it keeps these federal dollars local, and in support of small Maryland businesses.
Studies have shown that every dollar spent directly with a farmer has about twice the impact on the local economy than if spent through a middleman, like a chain store. In addition, the U.S. Department of Agriculture calculates that spending $1 in SNAP generates $1.79 in economic activity, so it has additional benefits for our state’s economy.
Building bridges between Maryland farmers and our food insecure neighbors takes leadership, so we are disappointed in Gov. Hogan’s failure to support the win-win Farms and Families Act.
We urge the governor to exercise leadership and show his commitment to bringing Maryland communities together during the legislative session by ensuring that funding for the Maryland Farms and Families Act is included in the final budget.
Joan Norman is co-owner of One Straw Farm in northern Baltimore County, and Michael J. Wilson is the director of Maryland Hunger Solutions, based in downtown Baltimore.