Vote 2020

How Your Voice Is Heard: Understanding Food Policy

We are undoubtedly in a historic election year. While 2020 has taught us many lessons, most of all we now know our community relies on a strong food system for its overall health, wellbeing, and stability.

As you think about how you want your to be voice heard this election season, it’s important to understand how the different levels of government affect the food you eat every day. From city councils to counties, to state and the national government, we’re breaking down everything you need to know about government and food policy.

Lightsey Farms - Hands with Texas box and Peaches

What is Food Policy?

Simply put, food policy is how government actions affect the food we eat. These policies impact who grows your food, how it’s grown, processed, transported, and labeled, and how it’s priced. Food policy even impacts what type of food is consumed in America, and by whom.

Policy refers to both the writing of a law or legislation and the way the law is interpreted and implemented. Food policy decision-makers exist at all levels of government and across all branches. Each level of government will have differing degrees to which it can — or cannot — take action, depending on the issue.

Almost all aspects of the food system are shaped by regulations and enforced at each - sometimes multiple - levels of government.

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Food Policy At the Local Level

Believe it or not, your locally elected city council has quite a bit of power over the food you eat. The State of Texas gives power to cities to govern local matters without permission from the state legislature, with the understanding that local policy cannot contradict or expand on state law.

Examples of locally enacted policies:

  • Cities are able to create laws dictating how urban land can be used to grow and produce food. This is particularly relevant given the resurgence in interest in urban agriculture. Here in Austin, the City allows residents to have backyard chickens, bees, goats, and livestock on their residential properties.
  • In 2016, on a recommendation from the Austin-Travis County Food Policy Board, the City of Austin allocated $400,000 yearly to Healthy Food Access initiatives. One of the projects funded through this investment is the Fresh for Less Program, a City of Austin collaboration with Farmshare Austin, Sustainable Food Center, and others that bring fresh, affordable, convenient, and nutritious food to communities around Austin.
Fresh for Less Mobile Market

Mariana Bonilla of Farmshare Austin at a Fresh for Less Mobile Market in 2019

County governments do not have as much power as city governments in Texas, so their ability to enact laws and policies is more limited. Tax revenue is one way counties can invest in food programs.

For example: in December 2019, the Harris County Commissioners Court voted unanimously to approve a Healthy Food Financing Initiative (HFFI). The HFFI funds programs in communities experiencing food insecurity to help them gain greater access to healthy foods like fresh produce, engage in learning about healthy food choices, and learn how to grow fruits and vegetables in an urban environment.

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Food Policy At the State Level

States have the power to govern over state matters without permission from Congress, with the understanding that state policy cannot contradict or expand on federal law. Texas adopts its own rules and regulations on agricultural practices, but all food production activities must be in compliance with federal standards.

The departments most involved in regulating agriculture and food in Texas are the Texas Department of Agriculture, Department of State Health Services, the Health and Human Services Commission, and the Texas Education Agency.

Examples of state-enacted policies across the US:

  • Prior to 2011, it was illegal to sell any food prepared in a home kitchen. The Texas Cottage Food law - for which SFC advocated - made it legal for home-bakers and makers to sell specific “low-risk” foods directly to consumers at a farmers’ market or farm stands, for example. Cottage foods include items like bread, baked goods, and quiches.
  • The State of Minnesota enacted the Green Acres Program to provide property tax relief for owners of agricultural property. But this property must be in areas where the market value of the land is affected by concerns like development pressure or the sale of recreational land.
  • Through state legislation, Washington allocated $2.5 million for the state’s Fruit and Vegetable Incentive Program, a healthy food access program that also supports the state’s produce industry.
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Food Policy At the Federal Level

Federal legislation serves as a baseline for agricultural and food policy in the US and is primarily laid out by the Farm Bill.

The Farm Bill is a comprehensive multi-year package of legislation passed once every 5 or 6 years. It has a tremendous impact on the entire U.S. food system. The last Farm Bill was passed in 2018. It is written by members of Congress who sit on both the Senate and House Committees on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry.

The Farm Bill is incredibly vast, and a broad range of stakeholders and coalitions are involved in its negotiations. SFC advocates for policies in the Farm Bill through our membership in the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) - an alliance of grassroots organizations that advocates for federal policy reform to advance the sustainability of agriculture, food systems, natural resources, and rural communities.

Flintrock Hill Farm Greenhouse

While there will not be a vote on the Farm Bill this fall, voters will have an opportunity to support or oppose Senate and House candidates who decide what will be included in the next Farm Bill, such as:

  • How much money is included in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP – formerly known as food stamps).
  • Which monetary incentives are provided to farmers who use healthy soil and water conservation practices?
  • Programs that support young, beginning, or farmers of color access land, credit, and resources.

The President can support or veto the Farm Bill. Additionally, the President is able to pick their cabinet members who will direct the agencies responsible for administering programs such as the Department of Agriculture and the US Food and Drug Administration, among others.

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Key Dates and Resources to Make Sure Your Vote is Heard this Election

As you can see, all elections are important for the food that we eat! SFC is a 501c3, and not able to endorse any particular candidate. However, we support everyone in making their voice heard this November. Here are some important dates to keep in mind with useful links to ensure you are prepared for the polls. Happy Voting!

Important dates in Texas:

  • Tuesday, October 13, 2020: First day of early voting by Personal Appearance
  • Friday, October 23, 2020: Last day to apply for Ballot by Mail (received, not postmarked)
  • Friday, October 30, 2020: Last day of early voting by Personal Appearance
  • Tuesday, November 3, 2020: Election Day

Voter and ballot information: