How the government can nudge people to spend food dollars in a way that benefits local small-scale farms and creates farmers' markets in areas where consumers have no alternative
If there's anything that can serve as a great stabilizer in America's growing financial divide, it is the nation's food assistance programs. The federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), better known as food stamps, doesn't only help Americans put food on the table. It serves as a major economic stimulus. For every dollar spent in SNAP benefits, economists say, we see a $1.84 increase in the overall economy. Considering that the USDA directed $68 billion last year to food stamp recipients, taxpayers can rest assured that -- at least in this case -- the government has made a sound investment with their money.
But could the government do more to nudge people to spend those food dollars more strategically -- and in a way that not only prevents malnutrition but supports and expands local agriculture and community food businesses?
Yes. By supporting farmers' markets and local small-scale farmers. According to the USDA, small farms and ranches are disappearing at an alarming rate, but there nonetheless remains a strong opportunity for renewed growth:
We see this "disappearing middle" in a decline of more than 150,000 farming operations with sales of more than $10,000 but less than $500,000 between 1997 and 2007. Some have migrated to larger categories but many just went out of business. But we also recognize that there is an amazing opportunity out there. For example, studies show that regional demand in the Midwest for fruits and vegetables could generate close to $900 million and create as many as 9,000 jobs.
The Obama Administration has signaled that it wants to assist small and medium-scale producers. Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Kathleen Merrigan has made the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food a key cross-agency initiative in the administration's effort to return America's connection between farmers and consumers while supporting economic growth in rural communities. Merrigan's boss, Secretary Vilsack, has also taken clear steps of support, such as instituting a program that provides $12 million in grant funds to small-scale farmers for hoop houses, which extend their growing seasons. He plans to expand this program in 2012.