$5.6 million for Oregon farm-to-school funding passes key committee
SALEM — A bill directing $5.6 million to Oregon's farm-to-school food program has won unanimous approval from the House Committee on Agriculture and Natural Resources.
Now, House Bill 2038 must compete against other spending bills in the Joint Committee on Ways and Means, which is prioritizing requests for funding in the next biennium amid a projected state budget deficit of $1.6 billion.
The bill would provide nearly $4.6 million for grants to help school districts buy foods grown and processed in Oregon and more than $900,000 for food-, garden- and agriculture-based education.
The committee's chairman, Brian Clem, D-Salem, noted that existing farm-to-school funding would be eliminated under the 2017-2019 budget recommended by Gov. Kate Brown and halved under the proposal by the co-chairs of the Joint Committee on Ways and Means.
Lawmakers have been advised to be selective in their requests for funding to the Ways and Means Committee, given budget constraints, he said.
If farm-to-school funding is significantly reduced from the amount requested in HB 2039, Clem recommended that the program revert to a competitive grant system.
Currently, all school districts receive non-competitive grants to buy Oregon food products, but this approach wouldn't provide enough incentive if each received only a small amount of money, he said.
"No one school district will find that worth doing," he said.
The history of Oregon's farm-to-school program goes back a decade, when lawmakers created the position of a farm-to-school coordinator in 2007.
A competitive grant pilot program armed with $200,000 was created in 2011, with funding expanded to $1.2 million in 2013. During the 2015 legislative session, another $3.3 million was added to the program and grants for food purchases were made non-competitive.
Aside from voting to approve HB 2038 during its April 4 meeting, the House Agriculture Committee also considered another bill that would increase tax credits for farmers who donate crops to food banks and similar institutions.
Under House Bill 3041, the tax credit would increase from 15 percent to 25 percent of the value of crops donated.
Jenny Dresler, state public policy director for the Oregon Farm Bureau, said the organization understands Oregon's tight budget situation.
If resources are available, though, lawmakers should support the bill because it would help farmers overcome financial barriers to donating crops, Dresler said.
Tax Fairness Oregon, a group that opposes tax breaks to preserve state revenues, doesn't believe the tax credit increase is justified, said Jody Wiser, its founder.
"Why are we doing it? We don't have any statistical analysis to show the need is there," she said.
Restaurants and grocery stores also donate food, but must content themselves with a deduction to their taxable income, rather than a tax credit, Wiser said.
"It's hard to explain why farmers should be treated so differently than other food contributors," she said.