Olivia Peña, recent graduate of the UVM Food Systems program, weighs in on the expiration of the U.S. Farm Bill

September 30 marked the deadline for the passing of a new Farm Bill, the primary agricultural and food policy tool of the federal government, which would have replaced the legislation that has been in effect since 2014. Although the bill’s expiration does not affect the funding of major, long-standing programs, lawmakers left the futures of many farmers hanging in the air as the failure to pass a new bill leaves dozens of programs in limbo.

Olivia Peña was the first UVM student to graudate with an undergraduate degree in food systems and is a recent graduate of the UVM Food Systems master's program. As a graduate student, her research focused on understanding the state of community and stakeholder involvement in Vermont during the 2018 Farm Bill development process, and with the hopes of using it as a guidebook and tool for all Vermonters interested in getting involved in food policy.

Now working as a food security specialist with Hunger Free Vermont, Peña recently spoke with writer Kate Whitney about the implications of the Farm Bill's expiration and findings from her report titled, “The Vermonter’s Guide to the Farm Bill. See excerpts from her Q&A below, and read the full story on the UVM Food Feed blog

Do you think the average American understands the breadth and significance of the Farm Bill? If not, what contributes to our ignorance of this important piece of legislation?

I don’t believe the average American understands the scope of the Farm Bill. The complex bill is omnibus, meaning it includes legislation on a range of topics that the average community member would find surprising. Furthermore, despite the name, the Farm Bill dictates policies beyond solely agriculture, with widespread impacts on the food system, environment, public health, and economy.

More than 400,000 households face losing eligibility for SNAP benefits with the amendments put forth by the House of Representatives, and thousands of children could lose their enrollment in free or reduced-price school meal programs. When children make up 40 percent of SNAP beneficiaries, and, in Vermont, 11 percent of the population faces food insecurity, why is this not bigger news?

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known as 3SquaresVT here in Vermont, is a crucial program to help lift individuals out of poverty and improve food security. Compromising about 80 percent of the funding, the nutrition title is often one of the most controversial topics surrounding Farm Bill legislation. In particular, this Farm Bill’s debates have largely centered on work requirements associated with receiving SNAP benefits.

Hunger in Vermont has impacts beyond the hungry individual; as a symptom of poverty, hunger negatively impacts one’s well-being, leads to poor health outcomes, decreases productivity, and depreciates one’s quality of life, which all have further negative effects on the greater community. Despite the surprising reality of the prevalence of hunger in Vermont, I think this is not discussed by the general population as much as one might think because of the complexity associated with food insecurity. The issue of hunger within our community is part of the larger dilemma of poverty. There is a lot of stigma associated with these phenomena and an associated expectation of who is hungry and what hunger looks like. In reality, hunger affects individuals across various demographics. Programs like 3SquaresVT (in Vermont) and SNAP (nationally) have the opportunity to increase food access, improve health outcomes, and lift individuals out of poverty.

Based on your research, what do you believe is the most effective way for the average person to have his or her voice heard on the issues?

I believe it’s important to consider that because the majority of individuals do not know what the Farm Bill is, they are not aware of the ways that they are impacted by it. When advocating for Farm Bill legislation, the most important step is to build a foundation of education and understanding of what the issue is, and how an individual or community is impacted by it. One can also become familiarized with organizations or other individuals whose values and beliefs align with the topic for which one is advocating. There is strength in numbers and forming a coalition of community members or organizations can help amplify voices and leverage change. Having a unified, collective voice is a very powerful approach. Finally, one of the most influential tools to advocate for an issue is storytelling and sharing. Using specific examples of how someone is affected by an issue and how legislative change can help is extremely impactful.


Rachel C Leslie
student in a greenhouse
As a graduate student in the UVM Food Systems program, Olivia Peña's research focused on understanding community and stakeholder involvement in Vermont during the development of the 2018 Farm Bill.