Feb 28, 2023
On December 13, 2022, the United States Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Subcommittee on Food and Nutrition, Specialty Crops, Organics, and Research convened a special hearing on Capitol Hill. Subcommittee Chair, Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, presided over the session titled “Food as Medicine: Current Efforts and Potential Opportunities.”
On December 13, 2022, the United States Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Subcommittee on Food and Nutrition, Specialty Crops, Organics, and Research convened a special hearing on Capitol Hill. Subcommittee Chair, Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, presided over the session titled “Food as Medicine: Current Efforts and Potential Opportunities.” The intent was to learn from the successes of non-governmental organizations in addressing the intertwined challenges of diet-related illnesses, increasing access to healthy foods, and supporting the farmers whose labor is critical to the food system.
Subcommittee Chair Booker and Ranking Member Senator Mike Braun outlined the moral and economic imperatives to funding initiatives that treat food as medicine. Among the staggering statistics they presented:
· Diet-related diseases are the leading cause of death in the United States.
· Half of Americans are considered pre-diabetic. As a result, there are 13,000 amputations every month due to diabetes.
· One-quarter of American teenagers are pre-diabetic or have Type 2 diabetes. And two-thirds of the calories young people eat are from unhealthy, ultra-processed foods.
· One out of every three dollars spent by the federal government goes to healthcare costs.
· Currently, less than 10% of Farm Bill funding goes to cultivating fruits and vegetables.
As Senator Braun invoked the old adage, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” the Subcommittee was charged with considering the importance of investing in food as a source of health.
Local farmer and advocate Leah Penniman was among the five non-governmental experts called to testify to the health benefits of “food as medicine” programs. Alongside community organizers and health practitioners, Penniman highlighted the significance of federal funding for the health of both consumers and farmers.
Penniman is Co-founder, Executive Director, and Farm Manager of Soul Fire Farm, and a member of the Hudson Valley Food Systems Coalition. Twenty-five miles northeast of New York’s political center in Albany, Soul Fire Farm is creating regional solutions to national-scale challenges, grown out of a personal and collective “yearning to feed ourselves.” Soul Fire Farm grows culturally relevant foods that serve as medicine for Black, BIPOC, and low-income families in the Albany-Troy region.
At the December 13 hearing, Ms. Penniman described the experience of living in South Albany, a food desert, with two young children. Food deserts are areas where residents face significant barriers to accessing fresh, healthy foods. Some 40 million Americans live in designated food deserts.
She described the cruel irony of struggling to provide her small children with fresh fruits and vegetables, despite having labored as a farm worker for years prior. This, she shared, was the motivation to build Soul Fire Farm.
After years of inputs to heal the degraded mountain soil, the Farm opened in 2010. To fulfill their mission of providing healthy food to people in the Albany area, they began a sliding-scale doorstep vegetable and egg delivery program. Called ‘Solidarity Shares’ the program started in Penniman’s South Albany neighborhood and has expanded to four areas of Albany and three in Troy. The model reconfigured the classic CSA membership, bringing nutritious foods directly to consumers. In short order, recipients experienced the healing power of heirloom and heritage crops, such as callaloo, plait de Haiti tomato, and fish pepper. As she testified:
“We surveyed our members annually and 100% reported that they were eating more fruits and vegetables and that health indicators like blood pressure and cholesterol were improving. They also reported increased feelings of overall well-being, energy levels, and a sense of empowerment. Local health clinics took notice and started making referrals. We couldn’t meet the demand for no-cost and affordable doorstep deliveries of vegetables. So, we started training other farms across the region in our method and soon Solidarity Shares were a multi-farm phenomenon. Corbin Hill Food Project, Rock Steady Farm, Poughkeepsie Farm Project, Schenectady Food Box, Sweet Freedom Farm, and Rocky Acres Farm are just some of the NY farmer-led “food as medicine” projects in our networks.”
Penniman shared the successes of creating an accessible, culturally relevant farm share for people living in food deserts. Those successes wouldn’t be possible for Soul Fire, or some 500 other farms in their network, without federal assistance programs like SNAP, Farmers to Families Food Box program, GusNIP Produce Prescription program or Farm to Food Bank projects. Penniman testified that “these programs provide a way for farmers to access a steady and reliable revenue stream for their crops while providing food to at-risk families. It’s a win-win.”
Continuing to advocate for farmers, Penniman closed her testimony by urging Senators to provide more tangible resources to the sector. Citing USDA data, she reported that:
“Farmers in this nation need our support - the producer population is aging and struggling to make ends meet. The average age of an American farmer has been steadily increasing to 57.5 years, with Black farmers averaging 61 years of age. Ninety-six percent of farming households rely on off-farm income to make ends meet, and that outside income comprises 82% of their annual revenue. At the same time, we have a growing health crisis of diet-related illnesses. By fully funding and expanding farm-to-community nutrition incentive programs we benefit both the farmer and the consumer. By increasing outreach to young farmers and farmers of color, we invest in the future of American agriculture.”
Representing Soul Fire Farm, she also recently provided input into the Justice for Black Farmers Act. Sponsored by Senator Cory Booker, this legislation would address significant, systemic barriers to funding, training, and land access for Black farmers. One of the pillars of the Act would include the creation of a Farm Conservation Corps, creating a learning and apprenticeship program for the next generation of farmers.
“We worked with Senators Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker to incorporate funding for beginning farmers to apprentice at established small farms that are BIPOC-led and/or organic,” Penniman said. “This responds to a key gap we see in the training journey, where farms hesitate to hire inexperienced workers because of a limited staffing budget.” As it is currently written, the legislation would provide funding to pay apprentices hired at farms with annual budgets of less than $250,000.
If enacted, the legislation would strengthen a regional “ecosystem” of Northeast Black and BIPOC farmers already working together to create a "wrap-around program that supports farmer access to training, capital, land, markets, and advocacy,” Penniman said. To date, this network includes Farm School NYC, Black Farmer Fund, Northeast Farmers of Color Land Trust, Corbin Hill Food Project, Black Farmers United NY, Black Farmer Fund, Sweet Freedom Farm, and others.
Fostering dialogue at these national and regional levels is a boon to food systems everywhere. As founding and facilitating members of the Hudson Valley Food System Coalition, HVADC celebrates the inspired work of Ms. Penniman and Soul Fire Farm.
“Farmers sow the seeds to our future and health each season,” said Mary Ann Johnson, Deputy Director of HVADC. “Through the work of both HVADC and the Hudson Valley Food System Coalition, we understand the significance of food as medicine. So to see Coalition member and community leader Leah Penniman speak to the power of farm collaborations in creating public health was a thrill. We congratulate Ms. Penniman on her testimony and appreciate her ongoing work with the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry.”