Gillibrand and Crowley bring a farm-aid discussion to the fast-food-fed Bronx

Gillibrand and Crowley. (Dan Rosenblum)
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This morning, more than a hundred people sat at Hostos Community College in the Mott Haven section of the Bronx. The view from the windows of a second-floor multi-purpose room there included bars, pizzerias and a bodega on 149th Street. These were some of the concerns the people had come to address.

Some of the approximately 120 attendees were residents of the neighborhood, but most of them appeared to be sustainable-food and environmental advocates, who had joined the locals for an "NYC Farm Bill listening session” with Representative Joe Crowley and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, who happens to be New York State’s first Senate Agriculture Nutrition and Forestry Committee member in decades.

“This is part of my agricultural listening tour," Gillibrand said. "It’s an important part of me being on the agriculture committee ... that you have a direct voice for federal policy by having a senator who sits on that committee.”

Since 1965, variations of the Farm Bill have generally passed twice each decade, with the most recent being a 628-page bill passed in 2008.

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In many ways the name of the legislative document is misleadingly simple-sounding: Though much of it details subsidies for growing (or not growing) specific crops, it also helps allocate money for food stamps, biofuel research and renewable energy. The 2008 bill awarded $284 billion across the country.

Both Gillibrand and Crowley said they see the bill as a way to direct federal money to New York and in particular to the nation’s poorest congressional district, which is in the Bronx.

Gillibrand’s proposals for the version of the bill that will be taken up in 2012 include reforming the dairy-pricing system to react quicker to market instability, a program to provide loans for supermarkets in low-income neighborhoods and a plan to create more connections between the Hunts Point Terminal Market and the rest of the region.

The crowd applauded loudest over her a planned 30 percent increase in SNAP benefits: money for food stamps.

“Obviously New York City is a city with significant food insecurity, as you know,” said Gillibrand. “From every newspaper article that you see, from every report that we’ve seen on television, that need is increasing. And in fact if you talk to food banks all across our state, they will tell you that more families are in need now than ever in the history of ever.”

Most of the questions went to Gillibrand, but Crowley briefly addressed what he called the  “re-up” of the Farm Bill by talking about one of the continuing ironies of food accessibility in the South Bronx, which is that people could be wanting for fresh food in the shadow of the expansive Hunts Point Terminal Market.

“I have nothing against Hostess or Drake’s Fruit Pies—one of my favorite things—but it’s easier to buy a Twinkie than it is to get a fresh apple or a banana,” said Crowley. “And yet we have the largest produce market in the world right here in the Bronx.

Qiana Mickie, a member of the New York City Food and Farm Bill Working Group, told Gillibrand she was happy the conversation was happening in the Bronx. She said while teaching at a school blocks from the Hunts Point Market, she saw a child eating five servings of chocolate for lunch.

“Ugh—awful,” was Gillibrand's response.

Mickie continued.

“New York needs more than … meat, dairy, grain, fruit and vegetable farmers,” Mickie said. “The northeast region needs to be empowered to supply our markets and neighborhoods with incentives to make more healthful food choices.”

One audience member questioned Gillibrand’s 2010 vote to reallocate a total of $13 billion away from food-stamp subsidies into state aid and new child-nutrition programs.

Gillibrand responded that she didn’t like the vote, but it was typical hard choice to make to introduce a new program with little money available.

“It’s a typical vote you need to make in Washington where you get ten things you want but you hate five things,” she said. “You can never get all 15 things. You never get everything you want. It’s never that simple. But my decision was based on it’s more important to get the reforms to the public school food system now, fight for more money later, because we do need the money.”

Joel Berg, who leads the New York Coalition Against Hunger, commended the two politicians on their work, but urged Gillibrand to make sure food stamps and aid make it to lower- and middle-class New Yorkers.

“As we know you’re too polite and you can’t say anything bad about a colleague,” said Berg. “But the truth is, we were promised by the then-chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee [Arkansas Democrat Blanche Lincoln], there would be no cuts in food stamps and because she backed down, and because agri-business lobbyists forced her to do so, at the last minute they cut food stamps instead of money to huge corporations. That person is no longer a United States senator and that should tell you at least part of the story.”

Bronx resident and “Mayor of Melrose”Ed Garcia Conde was one of a handful of people who approached the senator after the session. He said he agreed with what she told the crowd, but told her there weren’t enough people present from the Bronx.

“I think it’s critical that he have this meeting once again, but in the evening, after everybody’s home from work and they can come over and give their two cents,” he said. “Because a lot of policy-makers might be here, but these policy-makers don’t experience this every day.”