Lawson Asks Ag Secretary About North Florida Issues
WASHINGTON - Today the new Secretary of Agriculture, Sonny Perdue, testified before the House Agriculture Committee about the state of the rural economy. During the hearing, U.S. Rep. Al Lawson (FL-5) asked the Secretary about how he plans to look out for the interests of North Florida, including nutrition benefits, food deserts, HBCUs, and incentive programs encouraging healthy eating.
After the hearing, Lawson sent a letter to Sec. Perdue to outline other questions he would like answered about how USDA plans to help farmers and constituents in Florida's fifth district. You can read the full letter and the text is below.
Secretary Sonny Perdue
United States Department of Agriculture
1400 Independence Ave SW
Washington, DC 20250
Dear Secretary Perdue:
As a member of the House Agriculture Committee, I was honored to have you testify today before our Committee and discussing the issues that are facing our country’s Agricultural industry, including Florida’s fifth Congressional district. In addition to the issues raised during my questioning regarding the SNAP program, the vitality of our 1890 institutions, and the importance of specialty crops grown in my District, I write to express additional interests of importance to my district. I appreciate you taking the time to testify, and I look forward to hearing from your agency about the inquiries I have submitted for the record below.
In my District, one in every four Floridians has been on SNAP at some point over the last 12 months. That is twice the national average. Almost 70 percent of SNAP participants are in families with children; more than one-quarter are in households with seniors or people with disabilities; and many of these individuals work in low wage jobs, or turn to SNAP during spells of unemployment or fluctuating pay. Given these facts, could you describe the impact that cuts to SNAP in the Farm Bill would have on beneficiaries? Also, please elaborate on how you plan to respond to food banks such as the Second Harvest of the Big Bend and Feeding Northeast Florida, which rely on the Emergency Food Assistance Program, when they have an increased demand if SNAP benefits are cut?
The fifth District has benefitted a great deal from the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive (FINI) grants. We are encouraged by your comments at the hearing indicating support for incentive programs like FINI. We have four Fresh Access Bucks markets: Frenchtown Heritage Market (2014) in Tallahassee, and Berry Good Farms On the Go (2015), White Harvest Farm & Market (2016), and Riverside Arts Market (2016) in Jacksonville. Since these markets’ involvement, SNAP recipients have been incentivized to purchase healthy and local produce to the tune of $20,462. Statewide, the program is responsible for over 24,000 SNAP transactions and it increased the income of more than 440 farmers. Will you continue to support the use of SNAP and SNAP incentives at farmer’s markets and other farm-direct healthy food retailers?
Food Access and the Healthy Food Financing Initiative:
In North Florida, access to food is a real concern. Food deserts often leave vulnerable families shopping in convenience stores or resorting to fast food options. For instance, Winn Dixie is set to close stores in Jacksonville and Tallahassee, in neighborhoods that already struggle with easily accessing healthy foods. The Healthy Food Financing Initiative (HFFI) is a program critical in food insecure areas. In FY2016, HFFI provided the Northwest Jacksonville Community Development Corporation with an $800,000 grant to invest in the development of the North Point Two Grocery store in Jacksonville, Florida. In the hearing, you mentioned that USDA has very little money to operate the HFFI program. What is your plan to eradicate food deserts and what is your level of commitment to programs like the HFFI?
We are excited to see that USDA has finally designated a National Fund Manager to manage the HFFI at Rural Development. How does your agency plan to support this new program and integrate its efforts into the suite of important rural financing programs such as the Rural Business-Cooperative Service, which will go a long way in serving the rural stretches in my district?
Trade and Dumping by Mexico:
In my district and much of Florida we have a serious issue with Mexico’s dumping into our country’s agriculture market. This problem of dumping is with both specialty crops and sugar, causing some Florida farmers to go out of business. With the newly created Undersecretary of Trade, how will you work to help solve this problem?
Florida Peanut Farmers and Inclusion in USDA Programs:
In north Florida, there is a serious concern among some peanut farmers who would like to have base acres in order to be more competitive in the peanut market. What are your plans to address this issue in the broader peanut policy?
Able-Bodied Adults Without Dependents (ABAWDs) and Florida’s Commitment to Uphold Work Requirements:
ABAWDs are individuals between the ages of 18 and 49 without dependents, who are not disabled. ABAWDs are only eligible for SNAP for three months out of three years, if they are not working or in a training program for at least 20 hours a week. The challenge in Florida is that in the state’s FY2016 and FY2017 Employment and Training Plans, state have not pledged to guarantee that all ABAWDs are offered placement in qualified training. In the latest data that is available from the USDA, as of 2015, the State of Florida had 521,000 individuals who fall under the ABAWD designation; that is over half a million Floridians who either are not receiving the training they need, or are not aware that they need to take it. In the hearing, referencing SNAP, you noted that there are some disparities in how states are implementing and executing the program, going as far to say that there is some room for unanimity in various aspects of the program. Can you promise my constituents that you will work with each state, particularly Florida, to make sure that states are holding up their end of the bargain when enforcing this requirement by making every effort to properly notify individuals that it exists, and that states will have the support and resources from your agency to offer sufficient employment training?
I appreciate the opportunity to bring these very important issues to your attention and I also look forward to working with your agency. As you consider these issues, I invite you to visit Florida’s Fifth Congressional District for a tour of our urban and agrarian areas to get a first-hand understanding of the impact these issues have on my District.
Al Lawson, Jr.
Member of Congress