Summer isn’t just winding down for the kiddos. Its end is inching closer for lawmakers too, as Congress head back to session Sept. 9.
In a small piece for the August issue of San Diego Magazine, I tagged U.S. Rep. Juan Vargas as “the most important person in San Diego when it comes to food.”
Nevermind that the congressman’s kitchen skills are limited to fresh guacamole, a juicy mango salad and the occasional piece of burnt chicken. (His wife confirmed it.) The label still stands.
Why? Because the freshman lawmaker secured a seat on the House Agriculture Committee. He’s the first San Diego lawmaker to do so. A timely achievement given that we’re the 12th largest farm economy in the nation.
There’s one hugely important national issue brewing that you might be surprised to learn has big implications for our food supply: immigration reform.
Vargas’ district includes the southern-most portion of San Diego County, all of Imperial County and the entire California/Mexico border. It includes both farmers and a sizable population that is considered food-insecure, meaning they don’t know where their next meal is coming from. Jennifer Tracy, executive director of the San Diego Hunger Coalition estimates that just under half a million San Diegans are food insecure.
Immigration reform isn’t just about national security.
It directly impacts farmers who are trying to source needed migrant laborers. For Midwestern farmers who grow commodity crops like corn and soybeans, the issue is less critical. For San Diego growers, whose fruits and vegetables require hand labor, immigration reform is salient.
And then there’s the critically important $955 billion Farm Bill renewal. Vargas sits right at the cross-hairs of that debate.
The last time the Farm Bill came up for a vote, Vargas voted against it. He said it came down to the proposed massive cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps.
“I could not get over the cuts to the poor. I couldn’t do it,” he told me in late May.
Neither could plenty of other lawmakers. The bill died, and then August recess happened.
SNAP makes up the biggest portion of the Farm Bill. Efforts to strip SNAP from the Farm Bill, and jagged divides over just how deep the proposed cuts should go doomed the bill in the end.
But the conversation over SNAP isn’t over. In fact, it’s resurfacing with a slightly different focus.
Only about half the Californians who qualify for assistance (called CalFresh here) take it, according to the Los Angeles Times. In part because the paperwork is overwhelming and offices inhospitable. The result: California is now in last place when it comes to participation rates.
From the Times:
Millions of Californians don’t get help, and the state leaves hundreds of millions of dollars of federal money on the table. While the federal government pays the bill, states get an economic boost from more people with money to spend on groceries. Cash for food is so close to free money for states that several, such as Florida, with a Republican-controlled Legislature and a conservative GOP governor, pay contractors to scour the landscape for people to enroll in the program.
Here in San Diego, that means real dollars aren’t being spent at local food stores or farmers markets.
Vargas and his fellow lawmakers may be heading back to Congress soon, but a new Farm Bill still may not pass. Congress is only in session for nine days in September. Nine. And a call to the House Agriculture Committee office confirmed that there’s no date on the calendar for Farm Bill hearings to resume.
That means the current Farm Bill expires at the end of next month – Sept. 30, after which we head straight for the “Milk Cliff” (helloooo $8 a gallon milk). (The Washington Post had a good piece on the potential fallout should it happen.)
All of which brings the conversation right back to Vargas. Want a conversation about San Diego’s food future? Now is the time, and he’s the man to ask.