A Dream Deferred: What “A Better Farm Bill” means for Racial and Economic Justice in Los Angeles and Beyond

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?

—Langston Hughes, 1951

Sam Lee at 18 years-old

Sam Lee at 18 years-old

One of my fondest childhood memories is sitting at the feet of my Great-Granddaddy in his small one bedroom apartment in South LA, listening to his remarkably vivid stories of growing up in rural Alabama. The grandson of a slave, Sam Lee remains the most resilient, strongest, bravest and most stubborn man I’ve ever known. In fact, Great-Granddaddy was so stubborn, he managed to resist death until a few months after his 100th birthday. He often reminisced about his life as a sharecropper on a farm working from “can to can’t” -- when you can see in the morning until you can’t see at night. He swelled with pride as he spoke about the privilege he felt stewarding the land, but also lamented that for generations his family poured their blood, sweat and tears into land they could never call their own.

Despite immense contributions to our nation’s agricultural economy--through both labor and game-changing innovations--African-American, Latino and Asian farmers have historically been barred from the same farmland ownership opportunities as their white counterparts. Decades of racist, discriminatory lending practices by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and unjust land takings from farmers of color have contributed to deep disparities in farm ownership that still persist today. According to the 2012 US Agricultural Census, Black and Brown farmers make up little more than 5 percent of our nation’s farmers despite comprising over 50 percent of the total population.

As a response to inequities in farm ownership, the Food, Agriculture, Conservation and Trade Act -- more commonly known today as the Farm Bill -- established the USDA’s Outreach and Assistance for Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Rancher Program. This program aimed to provide new pathways to ownership and wealth-building among populations most impacted by discrimination in the agricultural industry, notably low-income farmers, women farmers, and farmers of color.

Congress is working to reauthorize the Farm Bill this year. The controversial 2014 Farm Bill reauthorization included deep cuts to the Socially Disadvantaged Farmer program, significantly impacting program participation. This year, the Farm Bill has remained controversial. Through a narrow, heavily partisan vote of 213-211, the House of Representatives approved a version of the bill that continues to undermine the Socially Disadvantaged Farmer Program, along with other critical programs for people of color. The largest controversy lies over the proposed $20 billion in cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps. To add insult to injury, the House Bill also includes notable cuts to sustainable agriculture and farmland conservation programs, impacting our environment and the future viability of agriculture in this country.

Sam Lee and wife Carrie Lee

Sam Lee and wife Carrie Lee

Protecting farmer equity, sustainable agriculture, and SNAP provisions should not be partisan issues. SNAP not only provides various economic and public health benefits to low-income Americans; it also benefits the private sector. Retailers that accept SNAP benefit from this program, as well as the distributors that bring food to retailers and the diverse array of farmers growing our food.  In fact, every $5 of SNAP spent generates an additional $9 in the local economy.

Sustainable and equitable agriculture programs benefit all Americans, regardless of party lines. Industrialized farming is the leading cause of water, soil and air pollution, contributing to a loss of biodiversity and unsafe conditions for workers and neighboring communities. More sustainable agriculture means a healthier future for all of us. Socially disadvantaged farmer programs invest billions into reducing historic inequities in agriculture and land ownership for people of color, contributing towards closing a severe racial wealth gap and strengthening our overall economy. Between 2012 and 2016, the Socially Disadvantaged Farmer and Rancher Program lent $2.7 billion to over 30,000 women, veteran, low-income and disabled farmers and farmers of color residing in both red and blue states.

The House Farm Bill would uniquely impact Los Angeles as 1 out of 40 SNAP recipients in the country live in Los Angeles County. With food insecurity on the rise in LA County, particularly among communities of color, reducing SNAP funding would leave local governments, nonprofits, and the philanthropic sector to fill the gaps. California Food Policy Advocates estimates that SNAP usage generates $3.3 billion in economic activity in Los Angeles County. A meaningful amount of that $3.3 billion goes to support local farmers through farmers market promotion programs and local businesses in low-income communities of color.

We deserve a better Farm Bill that does not cut SNAP, and funds robust, sustainable and equitable farm programs instead of dismantling them. This year, Los Angeles City leaders joined the call for a better Farm Bill, adopting an LA City Council resolution in May demanding that food security and environmental conservation programs be protected.

A joint committee will now hammer out a reconciliation between the Senate and House versions of the Farm Bill. As negotiations continue, we must  send a strong message to lawmakers to pass a bipartisan bill for the sake of historically impacted farmers, our environment and the millions of children, seniors, low-income families, veterans and people of color benefiting from SNAP.

In 1963, my Great-Granddaddy Sam moved from Selma to Los Angeles, somewhat reluctantly, searching for a better life. At 61 years old, he officially gave up his dream of owning a farm and instead pursued a myriad of odd jobs, including landscaping, until he retired shortly thereafter. While most of his family never fully embraced his same passion for land stewardship, his love for nourishing people and the earth lives on in me. His dream of stewardship involved transforming a few acres of land he could call his own. My dream of stewardship involves transforming communities, systems and policies like the Farm Bill to help restore our planet and generate more equitable economic opportunities for the next generation of Sam Lees.

Breanna Hawkins, Policy Director

Breanna Hawkins, Policy Director

Breanna Hawkins