By Marty Dagoberto, NOFA/Mass Policy Director
We’re all still adjusting to this new and rapidly evolving “normal,” and just like everything else, the world of food policy has been tossed up in the air and is yet to settle. Of course, we still have our priorities, the long-standing campaigns that so many of you have been such a critical part of. We also realize that many of us (including yours truly, the Policy Director) have very limited bandwidth to consider anything other than what is happening with COVID-19 and what it means for our families and communities. If you’re even reading this during the month of April 2020, thank you!
The legislative priorities we’ve been working on since January 2019 are essentially in a holding pattern right now. As of March 31, the state legislature is still technically operating, though legislators have zero capacity to address anything not directly COVID19-related. It’s highly unlikely that any of our priority bills will get any attention before late May or June (formal session ends July 31st, 2020). We are not asking our networks to contact legislators on anything other than COVID-19 issues in coming weeks. If/when anything changes on that front, we’ll let you know via a dedicated action alert, social media, etc.
We are supporting a slate of COVID-19-related bills and policy recommendations proposed by the Mass. Food System Collaborative (3/20/20)
Before we get to the “action” we want to highlight the COVID-19 recources page that we set up. Rather than duplicate efforts, we are primarily holding up resources curated by our allies, including CISA, New Entry Sustainable Farming Project and the Mass. Food System Collaborative.
NOFA/Mass COVID-19 Resources Page: https://nofamass.org/covid19
Be sure to bookmark CISA’s COVID-19 resources for farmers, business owners, and market managers
#1 – Keep Supporting Local Farms
Right now, the #1 thing for anyone/everyone to do (which so many people are already doing) is to continue supporting our local farmers by buying directly from them. Some farms, which rely on institutional contracts (ie. schools and restaurants), are really hurting right now. For obvious reasons, we need to make sure as many farms as possible make it through this!
Take advantage of the NOFA/Mass Organic Food Guide which includes listings of not only farms but farmstands and CSAs (and not just certified organic operations, but also operations which observe our “sustainability pledge!”
Other COVID-19 food system issues we’re tracking
The NOFA/Mass Policy Committee is doing its best to track emerging issues facing our food system during this pandemic and are fortunate to be a part of an ecosystem of advocacy organizations working in collaboration to bring about solutions. Below is a quick rundown of the issues on our radar and how we’re working on each of them. If you think something important is missing, please get in touch.
Protecting farmworkers from pesticides, suspension of EPA enforcement
On Thursday, March 26th, the Trump administration announced that for the duration of the pandemic, the agency would suspend enforcement of environmental laws. We are concerned that our current crisis and EPA’s announcement will, combined, lead to a lack of enforcement of the Worker Protection Standards that keep farm workers safe from pesticides, as well as a potential loss of funding for enforcement activities related to pesticide registration and regulation in Massachusetts. We are in communication with the Mass. Department of Agriculture and legislative allies in order to make sure that the Commonwealth will fill any gaps left by suspension of federal enforcement.
Related: We need to make sure that farmworkers have access to Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), not just for COVID-19, but also for those who work with pesticides. We are working with allies to advocate on this issue.
Recovery support for local food systems in federal relief packages
Thanks to advocacy led by the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC), the 3rd COVID-19 stimulus package signed into law on March 27th creates a $9.5 billion fund to provide aid to “producers that supply local food systems, including farmers markets, restaurants, and schools.” This means many more farmers impacted by the crisis will be able to receive direct cash aid. We are especially grateful to Congressman McGovern, on the Agriculture Committee, who has been a vocal supporter of farmers markets and local food systems. We will continue to work with NSAC and our allies in Congress to try to bring much needed oversight and accountability to where the money goes and to prioritize the folks who most need it.
Paid sick leave for food system workers
No one should have to make a choice between providing for their family and protecting the public from the spread of this virus. Many small farms and food businesses are unable to provide paid sick leave. Fortunately, the federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) temporarily provides employees with federally funded paid sick leave (2 weeks) and expanded family and medical leave for COVID-19-related reasons during the period from April 1, 2020 to December 31, 2020. Find out more on CISA’s page. We are continuing to advocate along with our allies for more resources from the state and federal governments.
Need for authoritative detailed guidance for farms and food businesses
How should food businesses best keep workers and the public safe? Many farmers and business owners have been piecing together advice from multiple sources. We at NOFA/Mass have joined stakeholder calls with the Department of Agriculture, asking them to develop more detailed guidance for food businesses. We know they are working as fast as they can and have produced several memos in recent weeks, including guidance on livestock auction markets, farmers markets, farm stands and CSAs. See the running list of MDAR bulletins here.
Given the likely need for new farmworkers to replace those who are incapacitated by COVID-19 or who are not able to travel here due to travel restrictions, one need for guidance identified by our members is how can farmers best train new farmworkers while observing physical distancing? We’ve brought this need for guidance to the attention of MDAR and know that our allies are working on relevant training initiatives. With lots of restaurant workers and others unemployed, we need to find ways to fill the farm labor gap in a safe way.
Prioritize COVID-19 testing for food system workers
As soon as antibody tests are available (which can tell if someone has already had the virus) and hoping/assuming that epidemiologists conclude that once you survive it that you’re immune and not contagious, we need to make sure that we prioritize “front line workers” for testing, including food system workers. If we know who is immune, they can take over the positions with higher risk of exposure to the public, etc. (Shout out to Ryan Karb of Many Hands Farm Corps in Amherst for providing this great idea!) The NOFA/Mass Policy Director shared the recommendation with the chairs of the Agriculture Committee in the Mass. legislature on March 27th and has since heard it echoed on stakeholder calls with the Department of Agriculture.
Keeping farmers markets open
After a round of advocacy in coordination with our allies statewide, we were happy to see that farms, food processors, farmers markets, farm stands and CSAs were included as “essential services” under Governor Baker’s 3/23/20 closure order (which, on 3/31/20 was extended until 5/4/20.)
However, decisions regarding the closure of farmers markets are made at the local level. Though MDAR has issued guidance on how to keep farmers markets open safely (see this and other resources from CISA), and even though outside events are not subject to the 10 person limit, some localities are deciding to close their markets. If anyone reading this would like to work to keep their local farmers market open, please get in touch.
Expand list of essential businesses to include community gardens and garden centers
We are joining with the Mass. Food System Collaborative in calling for the following: “The list of essential businesses should be updated to include community gardens, which are often a primary source of fresh healthy food in communities underserved by traditional retailers and with a population that is particularly vulnerable to dietary related disease, and to garden centers and nurseries, which provide needed supplies to farmers, especially during the planting season.”
“That’s it” for now! Please get in touch with any other suggestions or hot tips by emailing our Policy Director, Marty Dagoberto, at email@example.com – if he doesn’t respond in a couple days, try again! We’re all spread pretty thin.