The U.S. Department of Agriculture has started a social-media conversation that it hopes will show Congress how important a new farm bill is to most Americans.
Congress has been in the habit of passing a farm bill every five years, but it failed to do so last year, largely because of fights over food-stamp spending. The previous bill expired a year ago, but many of its programs were renewed until the end of this month.
Most Americans feel little connection to the bill, which includes trillions of dollars' worth of nutrition benefits for low-income families, as well as support for farm programs, such as disaster help for farmers and ranchers. Opponents say the bill has become nothing more than a vehicle for mass welfare and giveaways to wealthy corporate farmers.
The Senate has passed a proposal that would reduce federal nutrition assistance by $4 billion over the next decade, and the House passed a farm bill in July without the food-assistance provision. But so far, there's been no new farm bill.
Meanwhile, the Syrian crisis and U.S. debt-ceiling limit likely will be priorities for legislators when they return to Washington this week. So USDA chief Tom Vilsack is appealing to a nation of Facebook posters, Twitter tweeters, Instagram photographers and YouTube videographers to inform policymakers about the importance of passing a farm bill.
On Wednesday, Vilsack took to the USDA blog in a short video clip asking Americans to answer the question, "What does the farm bill mean to you?" in their social medium of choice.
"Time is running out to tell Congress to pass a food, farm and jobs bill," he said in the video. "Use #MyFarmBill to let us know how this bill affects you and your community. We're interested in hearing your story."
Within hours of Vilsack's post, #MyFarmBill became a trending topic in the Washington, D.C., Twitter universe, said Vilsack's press secretary, Courtney Rowe. The hashtag has been used in social-media feeds 500 times since the middle of the week, Rowe said.
The USDA introduced the hashtag in December before Congress signed off on a one-year extension of the farm bill.
Brian Williams, agriculture specialist for the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission, appreciates the campaign's grassroots feel.
"The farm bill is typically this political thing. People think of it in terms of producers or nutrition programs," said Williams, whose organization last week helped kick off a campaign for a food hub in Weinland Park.
"What I like about this (campaign) is, it makes an attempt to show that the farm bill affects everybody," he said. "It shouldn't be this obscure thing over in Washington. It's something we all ought to be thinking about."
Tom Heiby, CEO of the Columbus marketing communications firm FrazierHeiby, believes social media is the way to engage many Americans.
"I applaud the USDA for doing this because it's a last-ditch effort to get some attention" for the farm bill, said Heiby, whose firm serves agricultural clients, such as the Ohio Soybean Council. "This is an opportunity to have a voice."
Noreen Warnock, director of public policy and community relations at Columbus-based nonprofit Local Matters, thinks "a fair farm bill means funding and tools necessary for justice, equity, fairness for all producers, and that includes farm workers, immigrants and consumers, especially low-income consumers" who need food stamps.
Such a bill also "would include people in not-for-profit, food-justice and local-food work like Local Matters, because we all care about healthy, sustainably grown food for everyone on the economic spectrum," Warnock said.
The bill, which funds conservation programs, also should promote "environmental stewardship because healthy food is good for land and people," she said.
A new farm bill also "is important to protecting America's food sources and ensuring that all Americans have adequate access to that food," said Lisa Hamler-Fugitt, executive director of the Ohio Association of Foodbanks.
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, often called SNAP, helped "more than 1.8 million Ohioans provide food for themselves and their families" last year, she said.
Not only does the farm bill help keep food-bank shelves stocked, it stimulates local economies with dollars spent at grocery stores, Hamler-Fugitt said."We urge Congress to vote against harmful cuts or structural changes to nutrition programs in the farm bill," she said, "because the farm bill is vitally important, not only to the national safety net, but to the national economy."
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