March Madness! No, not that March Madness. We mean the Colorado state legislature. And, Congress. All the madness – and goodness – revealed in the paragraphs below. But first, a quick reminder:
Hunger Action Day (Week)
Just a quick reminder that today is the registration deadline for the virtual Hunger Action Week (3/24-3/31). This event, typically held on one day in the Capitol, is going virtual this year and will last for a week. There are various programs and you also can set up a meeting with your legislator if you want. Register here and we look forward to seeing you there!
We’ve previously covered the November/December 2020 special session motivated by a desire to provide $300 million in relief to businesses and people struggling from the COVID pandemic. Following that session, the legislature convened in early January, passed some bills in three days, recessed for a month, and reconvened in mid-February to conduct their regular business. Although it’s still not very regular. They are wearing masks (mostly), socially distancing, and encouraging lobbyists and the public to participate as much as possible virtually. But they have gotten down to business and, under the Constitution and a court ruling about pausing during declared public health crises, have until June 12th to get their business finished. Of note, the Joint Budget Committee – comprised of only six legislators – continued to work during the pause and are expected to finalize the budget next week.
Nourish Colorado is actively pursuing one funding initiative and has signed on in support of several other initiatives. The funding initiative is requesting an additional $300,000 to add to the existing $200,000 in the Healthy Food Incentive Fund for a total of $500,000. This fund supports two nutrition incentive programs: Double Up Food Bucks and the Colorado Nutrition Incentive Program, popularly known as the “Produce Box Program.” The boost in funding will ensure we can continue to operate both programs, while also growing the Produce Box Program to meet the overwhelming demand. For more information about these programs, please visit our website.
Continuing on the food access front, we are also supporting HB21-1105, an energy assistance bill brought to us by Energy Outreach Colorado. This bill supports households struggling to afford their energy bills by adding a $1 system benefit charge per Investor Owned Utility. We know – you’re thinking “that’s great, but what does that have to do with food access?” We’ll tell you. There’s a proposed amendment, brought by several organizations, that would utilize the contribution proposed in the bill to provide a utility assistance payment of $20.01 to every SNAP household in Colorado. Still wondering? And, you’re probably also thinking that’s a weird amount of assistance to provide. Here’s the payoff – and it’s huge! Federal regulations ensure that any SNAP household that receives over $20 in energy assistance is automatically eligible to receive the highest utility deduction in their SNAP benefit calculation. Bottom-lining it: households not currently receiving the highest deduction see their benefits increase $90/month. Furthermore, because of federal SNAP matching and SNAP’s positive impact on the local economy, this could bring between $27-$67 million of additional SNAP dollars into Colorado, while also generating up to $100 million in state economic activity. And that’s how it’s about food access.
Shifting our focus a bit, we are also supporting initiatives regarding agriculture workers’ rights and immigration reform. SB21-087 is a comprehensive reform bill ensuring rights for agricultural workers in Colorado. The bill has many provisions, among them: removes the exemption of agricultural employees from the Labor Peace Act, meaning ag employees can organize and join labor unions; removes the exemption of ag employees from state and local minimum wage laws; makes meal and rest breaks consistent with other employees; and requires employers to provide overwork and health protections to ag employees. This bill was amended and approved in its first committee hearing on March 17 and has been sent to Senate Appropriations.
Several immigration rights bills have been introduced and will be soon that will help ensure tax-paying immigrant-based households and undocumented residents receive access to public benefits, business opportunities, and more in a safe environment. SB21-131 (Protect Personal Identifying Information Kept By State) passed out of committee and is on its way to Senate Appropriations. Additional bills will be introduced that will address issues from bills passed during a 2006 special legislative session.
Farm and Food Priorities for COVID Relief Funds
A large coalition of farm and food interests, convened by the Blueprint to End Hunger, will be sending Governor Polis a letter on March 19th providing our input into what we all believe should be the farm and food priorities for the federal COVID relief arriving in Colorado through the American Rescue Plan. We have identified just over $88 million in farm and food priorities including, but not limited to, supporting: school nutrition programs; women, infant and children’s (WIC) and older adult meal produce boxes; emergency food systems like food pantries and food banks; providing direct cash assistance to immigrant families; and building local and regional food system capacity.
Current federal policy, for us these days, is focused primarily on two issues: 1) COVID relief and 2) Child Nutrition Reauthorization.
American Rescue Plan
The latest round of COVID relief, in the form of the American Rescue Plan (ARP), was recently signed into law by President Biden and is starting to make its way to individuals and the states. The entire package is $1.9 trillion with approximately $350 billion headed to Colorado. This piece of legislation was brought to us by the state of Georgia and their two brand new, shiny Democratic Senators (Reverand Raphael Warnock and Jon Osoff). Adding those two in the Senate, along with new Vice-President Kamala Harris as the tie-breaker, ensured a Democratic majority in the Senate – which was needed, as not one Republican, in the Senate or the House, voted for this bill that is supported by roughly 70% of the American public. The ARP addresses immediate COVID needs, alters some of the landscape helping to lift more people out of poverty, and provides $10.4 billion for agriculture support. Of that $10.4 billion, almost half will go to farmers and ranchers of color and military veterans.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack summed up this aspect of ARP saying: “The American Rescue Plan is historic for other reasons, namely for the transformative debt relief it provides to Black, Indigenous, Hispanic, and other farmers of color. For generations, socially disadvantaged farmers have struggled to fully succeed due to systemic discrimination and a cycle of debt. On top of the economic pain caused by the pandemic, farmers from socially disadvantaged communities are dealing with a disproportionate share of COVID-19 infection rates, hospitalizations, death and economic hurt. The American Rescue Plan ensures that we get the economy on track for everyone, especially those who have been marginalized, who are hurting, who have been overlooked or shut out in the past.”
As we all know, hunger has increased throughout the pandemic, with as many as 30 million adults and 12 million children not getting enough to eat. Not surprisingly, the existing disparities in food insecurity have also increased with Black and Latino adults twice as likely to report hunger in their households. Consequently, the Rescue Plan has several provisions to help people get the food they need, including among other initiatives:
- Extending the SNAP benefits 15% increase (about $28/month/person) through September 30th,
- Ensuring access to Pandemic EBT through the emergency (increase food assistance benefits to help cover the loss of subsidized school meals), as well as providing school nutrition programs administrative funds and extending waivers and flexibilities,
- Providing an increase in funding for the Women, Infant, Children (WIC) program to $35/person (up from $9/kids and $11/women), as well as additional funding for senior nutrition through the Commodity Supplemental Food Program,
- Providing nutrition assistance block grants to US territories in lieu of SNAP, and
- Making investments in the food supply chain infrastructure by supporting food banks, local purchasing, producers, farmers markets, and local food systems.
This is just a small sample of what’s included in ARP. You can find more information from the USDA here, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition here, and the Food Research and Action Center here.
Child Nutrition Reauthorization (CNR)
The second issue firmly on our radar is the impending introduction of the Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act. For those that don’t remember because it’s been so long, the last iteration of child nutrition was passed in 2010 as the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act. It was supposed to be reauthorized in 2015 – and now, in 2021 it appears they may finally get to it. This piece of legislation is all school food programs, WIC, and Farm to School, among other items. Marker bills (pieces of legislation that members of Congress introduce hoping they get integrated in the final reauthorization act) have started popping up. Notably, the Farm to School Act of 2021 was recently introduced. Some elements of that marker bill include:
- Raising mandatory funding from $5mil to $15 million (still a drop in the bucket of requests),
- Raising the grant cap so the threshold is $250k,
- Changes to language to improve racial equity and recognize tribal sovereignty, and
- Prioritizing grants and incorporating culturally relevant foods, working with low-income populations, and sourcing from Tribal farms.
Several other CNR and other pieces of legislation have been introduced in Congress. We will be highlighting some of them in our next blog. In the meantime, you can always stay up to date on farm and food legislation at the state and federal levels by visiting our bill trackers. You can also find the bill tracker links, and additional information as well as previous blogs, on the policy page of our website.