FALS holds virtual Spring Panel, “Setting the Table: Digging into Federal Food Laws in Application”

By Andie Parnell, Staff Writer

On Monday, March 15, the Vermont Law School (VLS) Food and Agriculture Law Society (FALS) virtually hosted their Spring Panel event. The panel’s discussion concerned the ways in which federal food laws impact different stakeholders. The common theme was disproportionate federal appropriations and implementation for food access and security, in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Professor Laurie Beyranevand, Director of the VLS Center for Agriculture and Food Systems (CAFS), moderated the event. The panel included an array of policy and legal professionals, who not only facilitated a meaningful discussion, but also embodied an array of career options for students interested in the field of food and agriculture law and policy.

Kelly Nuckolls began the panel discussion. Nuckolls is a Policy Specialist at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, advocating for federal policies related to sustainable agriculture. Nuckolls highlighted three food-law appropriations and implementation processes that inadequately serve certain stakeholders. These processes include federal labeling laws, COVID-19 laws, and federal rulemaking.

Nuckolls noted that, for small farmers, understanding federal programs is time consuming and resource intensive. For a federal agency weathering a global pandemic, word choice is imperative for encompassing all stakeholders in food law implementation. Lastly, Nuckolls gave an example of how easy and haphazardly Congress can block funding used for finalizing federal rulemaking. Nuckolls concisely illustrated how complicated creating and implementing food and agriculture programs can be for producers, program beneficiaries, federal agencies, and federal rule makers.

Next, Jack Hornickel discussed food-safety legislation and local food production. Hornickel is a Staff Attorney at GrowNYC, assisting green-market producers with cash-flow management, business formation, land tenure, and farm succession. GrowNYC works with local and regional producers in a “producer only farmers market system,” selling “only products that someone grows or creates themselves.” GrowNYC buys these food products to administer four food access programs throughout New York City: Greenmarket, Farmstand, Fresh Food Box, and Emergency Food Box.

Hornickel discussed food safety rules and the limiting impacts for small producers. In application, Hornickel notes that federal thresholds for licensing and regulation do not adequately address intended stakeholders. “When these thresholds of exemptions are set…they create artificial barriers for something that is a natural system…Farms are living, growing things,” Hornickel said. Farmers often have to rely on legal advice in order to abide by food safety regulations. Hornickel stressed that uniform food laws create complexities for small producers, when uniformity should not be the goal.

Hornickel was followed by Ona Balkus, who shifted stakeholder focus to the ways federal food programs impact consumers. Balkus is the Food Director at the Washington DC Office of Planning, appointed to promote food access, equity, and sustainability in the local and district food economy. Balkus also leads the DC Food Policy Council. Balkus stressed the importance of food policy councils because they have trusted relationships in place, readily available to address food crises.

According to Balkus, food insecurity in DC was a chronic condition prior to the pandemic. Since the pandemic began, food insecurity rates in the area have nearly doubled. Balkus highlighted that food insecurity has a disproportionate impact based on race. Food insecurity impacts Black DC residents at a rate of thirteen times more than white residents and impacts Latinx DC residents six times more than white residents. Balkus and the DC Office of Planning have worked on combatting food insecurity through opening full-service grocery stores, implementing federal emergency food programs, increasing enrollment for federal nutrition assistance programs, keeping numerous farmers markets open during the pandemic, and working with federal agencies to implement district emergency food responses.

After Balkus, Erin Parker discussed tribal sovereignty efforts that utilize federal legislation and legal guidance. Parker is the Director of the Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative (IFAI) at the University of Arkansas. As director, Parker supports IFAI through program development, research, writing, and analysis of legislative programs that impact tribal government, communities, and producers. Parker and the IFAI have the unique task of analyzing the intersection between federal and tribal law through projects such as the Native Farm Bill Coalition, Model Tribal Food and Agriculture Code, and Tribal Food Safety Alliance.

IFAI is a research partner with the Native Farm Bill Coalition. The Coalition represents 170 tribes, advocating for tribal interests in the farm bill. Parker stressed how the simple exclusion of: “and to tribes,” in state and federal food and agriculture programs like the farm bill forecloses tribes from the benefits of those programs. By including Indian Country in food and agriculture legislation, tribal governments can be more prepared for future public health emergencies.

Parker and IFAI also offer direct guidance to tribal governments through The Model Tribal Food and Agriculture Code and Tribal Safety Alliance. This model code offers tribal governments broad guidance in drafting food and agriculture laws on Tribal Lands, while the Tribal Food Safety Alliance offers curriculum and food safety compliance for tribal producers, especially around traditional, cultural tribal foods. Each of these projects offers sovereignty tools for tribal governments and food systems.

Lastly, Beyranevand facilitated an open discussion and asked the panelists how the federal government could better address the concerns around uniform food legislation. The panelists cited tribal self-governance, open communication with diverse stakeholders, and creating an ideological belief for food accessibility as potential improvements.

The panelists were also asked about gaps in federal food law, solutions for those gaps, and how to address the artificial thresholds set by federal legislation. Although each panelist had different responses (conservation programs, SNAP, interagency communication, food distribution programs), the solutions involved two main ideas: communication and change. Like other federal legislation, food law requires communication between stakeholders and lawmakers to address program flexibility, feasibility, problems, and solutions.

Each panelist brought a different professional background, serving different stakeholders in different capacities. Overall, federal food law application was presented as complicated, often requiring significant time and resources to navigate.

The full Spring Panel is accessible here: https://us02web.zoom.us/rec/play/1DUfeBQYBPTgisyIfTTxoa4pjvzgpnnYptiiN7-Uc6aD8w2SgWktHFqCpBlscrcsd9xt6t3OAeMrm9NY.kgdnjTJScfJnBSb5?continueMode=true&_x_zm_rtaid=U_zLA3I9SoegA6-o9w-NGQ.1616203233863.83a8bf478a81dac3a039eca7610115c1&_x_zm_rhtaid=476

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