Local Food Action Plan Taking Root

The Recorder, December 30th, 2015, by Richie Davis.

Here’s something to chew on as you digest a holiday feast:

After two years of work on a new “local food action plan” for the state, agricultural advocates and legislators will start the new year making hay from the 416-page document.

The plan aims to boost Massachusetts food production, sales and consumption, to create jobs, to improve wages and skills of food workers, to protect land and water and to reduce hunger and food insecurity. It was hailed a week ago at the Western Massachusetts Food Processing Center as “a road map for how to grow food systems, from land protection and business development, to workforce training,” said Rep. Stephen Kulik, D-Worthington. He co-chaired the 17-member Massachusetts Food Policy Council that drafted it with help from about 1,000 people in focus groups around the state.

“This is ground zero, where so many ideas started,” Kulik told those gathered at the Greenfield processing center, which grew out of the state’s last food plan update and turned a $450,000 state investment into millions of dollars in sales using hundreds of tons of agricultural products.

With recommendations for restoring UMass Extension’s ability to help farmers and for ensuring that government regulations don’t tie farmers’ hands on the kinds of small-scale operations that have been thriving in the state, the plan should get translated into action on Beacon Hill in the form of a comprehensive bill to be drafted early next year that will package together many of the agricultural provisions “already in the hopper,” said Kulik.

Meanwhile, a Massachusetts Food System Collaborative, composed of organizations working to promote sustainable agriculture, farmland preservation, food justice and providing training and support for new and established farmers, is forming. It would “make sure things move forward and hold the vision of the plan and identify things in the plan that don’t have someone to champion them,” said Winton Pitcoff of Plainfield, the plan’s project manager and a consultant to the new collaborative.

If the coalition, and the food policy council itself, are ready to ensure that the new plan doesn’t simply sit on the shelf and eventually turn to compost, Kulik said, the Baker administration — which has already embraced the work created by that of predecessor Deval Patrick — needs to commit itself, together with the Legislature, to promote the policy recommendations in the plan.

That means ensuring that the state Department of Agricultural Resources gets additional funding to restore its ranks after more than a decades of reductions, said Kulik, the vice-chair of the powerful Ways and Means Committee.

“I believe MDAR needs more financial resources. That’s one of my key responsibilities,” said Kulik. “It’s incumbent on all of us to press the administration” to include in its upcoming five-year capital spending plan release of Agricultural Preservation Restriction and Farm Viability money already approved but in the state’s environmental bond to protect farmland and promote farm entrepreneurship.

Among the changes called for is moving oversight of the state’s two slaughterhouses — one of which is in Athol — from the state Department of Public Health to MDAR, “to foster a more agriculturally informed environment for regulation of livestock processing.”

Others would develop regulations to help the state’s dairy farms’ capacity to sell raw milk direct to consumers, review state beekeeping laws and propose recommendations to support the growth of native pollinators, develop an online job-matching hub for domestic farm workers, and support federal legislation to forgive student loans to college graduates after 10 years of working in farming.

The plan in New England’s largest food-consuming state looks at the fishing industry for the first time as an important source of food. And in a state where land values have been increasing and where 13 acres a day are lost to development, it points the way for preserving more farmland so there’s more access for new and established farm operators and increasing food production.

The far-reaching plan calls for support for handling farm and food waste through anaerobic digestion and developing a market for its end products. It even recommends using more farmland, including state-protected farmland, that’s not in production, for growing food and even calls for opening state-owned woodlands to maple syrup production.

There’s also an entire “food access, security and health” section of the plan that includes recommendations for restoring Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits to many of the clients forced off the program over the past couple of years, and creating an integrated application portal for MassHealth, SNAP and other needs-based programs.

Food Processing Center Food Business Development Specialist Nico Lustig, who worked on the plan’s food-processing section, said she hopes the plan will spur including in the state’s developing economic development plan investment in food-processing infrastructure, such as the expanded refrigeration equipment the Greenfield center plans to install.

Kulik said, “I foresee the food plan giving added momentum and added interest to some of the bills that were already filed. I think we have an extra good opportunity now to move these forward. There’s a lot of momentum building.”