A Column of News & Comment by Senator James L. Seward

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, businesses have worked diligently to stay afloat – it has not been easy. Every industry has been affected in some manner and I know from my conversations with business owners they are all utilizing creative strategies to weather the storm, keep their doors open, and avoid laying off employees. Certainly, this is not the time for the government to introduce additional hurdles but unfortunately, that is exactly what is under discussion here in New York regarding the highly successful Farm to School Incentive program.

The New York State Farm to School Program was created to connect schools with local farms and food producers to strengthen local agriculture, improve student health, and promote regional food systems awareness.

Recently, information provided by one of the program’s stakeholders, New York Grown Food for New York Kids, indicated that the governor’s office is set to institute a new policy that will result in half of all New York schools losing eligibility for the program. The potential changes would result in food insecurity, another crippling blow to New York’s already-struggling farmers, and an irreparable loss of faith between school districts and the program.

I recently joined with several of my senate colleagues to call on the governor to clarify his position on this topic. Writing in a letter to the governor:

Agriculture is arguably the most important industry in New York, and every family and child in our state is its biggest beneficiary. When Senate Republicans held the Majority, we worked with the School Nutrition Association to adopt language in the state budget that provided an additional incentive for districts to source food from in-state growers and producers. We cannot afford to go back at a precise time when we should be moving forward to expand this program.

As the saying goes, No Farms No Food. What happens when all the farms are permanently gone from New York due to decisions like these or when a child’s nutrition at the lunch table is irreversibly upended? My Senate Republican colleagues and I respectfully call on you to address this matter and reverse course to save the Farm to School Incentive program for the sake of all New Yorkers.

Farmers are already contending with soaring costs and overregulation and now is not the time to make matters worse. Farmers struggle with a number of challenges in the best of times, and the COVID-19 pandemic has hit many hard.

Combined with the exacerbating circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic, burdensome red tape, and a gloomy state economic outlook, a policy change that renders half of all schools ineligible for Farm to School would mean more dire outcomes for New York farms and families.

Additionally, school districts are looking for every opportunity to ensure students receive nutritious and healthy meals. Unfortunately, some children only eat well when they are in school. The pandemic has already forced schools to find new ways to deliver meals to students, many who are learning remotely part or full time. Taking away or limiting the Farm to School Program could lead to health issues for many underprivileged young people.

Several weeks ago, I joined with my Senate Republican colleagues to advocate for legislation that I am co-sponsoring (S.8944) to delay the work of an unelected wage board that is considering new overtime thresholds for farmers. The measure would also require the board to consider additional factors including wage and overtime rates in neighboring states, the impact that COVID-19 has had on the agricultural industry, total compensation, including other benefits such as housing and insurance, and the supply and demand of farm employees. The push to protect the Farm to School Program is another action we need to pursue.

As farmers work to stay the course and continue to feed our region, state, and nation it is vital that we take every step possible to help not hinder their progress.