Baltimore has a stake in the farm bill [Commentary]

Washington gridlock has stopped Congress from passing a much needed farm bill. Here in Baltimore, my administration has put politics aside to implement an aggressive urban agricultural plan to meet the needs of our most vulnerable citizens and support local farmers. Washington needs to do the same and pass a farm bill that will give cities and rural communities the support they need.

Negotiations remain stalled, and if Congress fails to act before year's end, the consequences could be great for Baltimore families.

Baltimore City, like many other cities around the country, is dependent on a comprehensive, multi-year farm bill that addresses the current needs of local farmers, low-income residents and consumers who want access to healthy foods grown nearby. Programs in the farm bill that support local farms and food access are instrumental to our city, making Washington's gridlock particularly disheartening.

USDA's "Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food" initiatives are instrumental in supporting farmers and food access. In Baltimore, 15 farmers, nonprofit organizations and academic institutions have received over $7 million since 2009 to directly benefit local agriculture and increase access to food in our city.

Baltimore needs more partners in Washington like Sens. Barbara Mikulski and Ben Cardin, as well as Reps. Elijah Cummings and John Sarbanes to help advance the progressive policies we have put in place locally.

Last week, the city's Planning Commission passed Baltimore Urban Agriculture Plan. It is the roadmap for the future of agriculture in Baltimore City and is a part of my administration's Homegrown Baltimore: Grow Local, Buy Local, Eat Local initiative, which aims to reduce vacant housing and urban blight in Baltimore by transforming it into farming space that serves the entire community.

We recognize there is a real opportunity for the city to both develop a local food system and revitalize Baltimore's communities through farming.

Urban farms have great potential to serve as local economic development engines. They improve blighted vacant land, provide opportunities for training, and create jobs for local residents.

Farmers need to grow year-round, and the city has responded by changing its building code to allow for the erection of hoop houses. There are over 30 within city limits thanks to this change.

This year, two farmers signed five-year leases with the city to farm three acres of formerly vacant land. There are approximately another 20 acres of similar city-owned land for farmers to lease in the next 10 years.

A farm bill would help beginning farmers in Baltimore be successful through essential training and start-up grants that could further these efforts already underway locally.

Beyond the support for local farming, the farm bill has real consequences for families struggling to put food on the table. Both the House and Senate versions of the farm bill would mean cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known as SNAP or food stamps. However, the House bill would be far more devastating, calling for deep cuts to the tune of $40 billion.

Over 30 percent of Baltimore City residents receive SNAP benefits. Through my administration's Baltimore Bucks Program, customers can increase the value of their SNAP purchases at local farmers markets and help to blunt some of the impact families could face due to federal cuts in the program.

In 2012 total SNAP spending power at farmers' markets was more than $70,000.

The farm bill could help us grow this successful program if those intent on partisan gridlock in Washington put an end to political posturing. SNAP recipients are our children, our disabled and our seniors. They are hardworking Americans who do not make a livable wage and have worked all their lives but still need a little help each month to access healthy foods.

It's time for Washington to stand with these families and with cities like Baltimore that have made this a priority.

Baltimore City cannot fully realize the potential of our urban agriculture plan, nor can we provide healthy affordable foods at farmers markets, without a farm bill.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said it best this week when he noted that the traditionally non-partisan farm bill would test if Washington still had any bipartisan DNA left. As families prepare for the holiday season, I know that many here in Baltimore would be grateful for a sensible farm bill that increases food access and supports urban communities by helping to transform blight into opportunity.

Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, a Democrat, is the mayor of Baltimore. Her email is Twitter: @MayorSRB.

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