One of the initiatives I was proud to lead in the Legislature this year was the formation of the Texas House Farm-to-Table Caucus, the first legislative caucus in the country dedicated to local food issues.
While I’d worked in previous sessions to pass legislation to support local farms and food production, I knew that a more formalized effort bolstered by strong bipartisan support would help advance the growing local food economy in Texas.
Together, we passed two bills that are awaiting the Governor’s signature, and helped bring a broader awareness to the importance of small and urban farms and cottage food production in Texas.
Below, find out what the Farm-to-Table Caucus accomplished this session, and get caught up on the redistricting special session in The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.
From Texas Farms To Your Table
I founded the House Farm-to-Table Caucus last year to promote local agriculture and healthy food, as well as draw attention to food security and hunger in our communities. Our caucus currently has 28 members, and it has been a refreshing experience to find common ground on issues pertaining to local farming and food production.
This session, our caucus introduced seven bills. Two are awaiting the Governor’s signature, and several others had successful hearings before dying in Calendars.
Below, learn more about these bills — because you can expect to see some of them back again in 2015.
HB 970: Cottage Foods — Awaiting Governor’s signature
This bill, currently on the Governor’s desk, expands last session’s cottage foods bill which allowed for the sale of certain foods up to $50,000 a year out of the home. HB 970 adds to the list of allowable foods for sale to include things like granolas, cereals, candies, and pickles, and also expands the point-of-sale locations to include other customarily direct-to-consumer venues, like farmers markets, farm stands, and events.
HB 1382: Standardizing Sampling — Awaiting Governor’s signature
This bill, also on the Governor’s desk, was authored by Rep. David Simpson, and standardizes procedures for sampling food at Farmer’s markets and applies them to all markets, not just those that are municipally owned. This bill also sets up guidelines for cooking demonstrations and eliminates fees to encourage both the producer to offer samples, and the consumer to try new and varied products – adding to the market’s long-term viability.
HB 910: Limiting Fees — Died in Calendars
This bill, by Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, would have limited fees imposed by a given jurisdiction to $50 per year for producers trying to sell their products at farmers’ markets. Currently, some sellers are burdened by costly fees imposed by multiple jurisdictions multiple times per year for selling at a market. This bill passed out of the Public Health committee but unfortunately did not make it to the floor of the House for a vote.
HB 1306: Agricultural Valuation — Sent to Calendars, never put on the Calendar
Texas has a strong tradition of farming and agriculture. However, historically, these farms have been quite large and expansive. These traditions have shaped the way land is appraised in the state. Because we value land used for agriculture, and because it does not require the same maintenance, land can be “agriculturally valued” and be taxed on its productive capacity rather than its market value. This is called “open-space” valuation – it helps preserve open-space land in the state, and thus, agriculture. To encourage urban agriculture, I authored HB 1306, which would have offered this same valuation to small farms which are currently being disqualified too often based solely on their size. Moreover, HB 1306 would have also offered this same valuation to community gardens, provided that the tract meets all other necessary requirements for this special appraisal.
HB 1393: Separate Building Requirement — Sent to Calendars, never put on the Calendar
Producers looking to license a facility to produce food in their homes must currently build an entirely separate building in which to house the kitchen. This is a significant cost, particularly for, say, a farmer who wants to make value-added products from their leftover produce, like relishes or pickled items. This bill by Rep. Susan King would have removed that requirement to encourage both producers to make these items, and to help prevent the wasting of agricultural products.
HB 1652: Community Gardens — Left pending in committee
Part of the Farm-to-Table Caucus’ mission is to encourage the consumption of local and fresh foods. One way to do this is by growing your own, and learning about where your food comes from. Across the state there are vacant lots which could be being used for community gardens, but sometimes the landowners are reluctant to allow their property to be used for this purpose because they are afraid of liability suits. To encourage the productive use of unused land, this bill by Rep. Borris Miles would have created liability protection for the landowner who allows their land to be used for a community garden.
HB 254: Wastewater — No action taken in committee
Urban farms are charged wastewater fees in accordance with how much water they use, like we all do in our homes. However, this is problematic: since this water is being used agriculturally, it never actually enters the wastewater system. This has resulted in very high wastewater bills for these farmers who end up paying for wastewater fees despite that they are not using the service. This bill by Rep. Borris Miles would have exempted farms from paying for wastewater service that they do not use.
All in all, I am proud of the legislation our Caucus introduced, and that we were able to get so much traction on these issues. I know that in future sessions our Caucus will continue to be successful in addressing the regulatory issues faced by local farmers and food producers that will enable their businesses to flourish.
The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly
Over this week and next, the House and Senate Select Committees on Redistricting will hold hearings across Texas to garner feedback on the process. Right now there seem to be more questions than answers about how this special session will play out, but in the meantime here’s what has been Good, Bad, and Ugly about the process so far.
The Good: Introduction of Alternate Maps
Several of my House colleagues have introduced alternative House and Congressional maps that adequately address the growth of our minority populations. Legislators have the opportunity to pass redistricting plans that are based on actual population data and don’t intentionally discriminate against minority voters. I urge my colleagues to pass fair maps that don’t land Texas back in federal court, and don’t deliberately deny minority voters the opportunity to elect candidates of their choosing.
The Bad: Partisan Politics Wasting Texans’ Money
The Governor called this special session specifically to pass interim maps that were based on maps shown to have a deliberately discriminatory intent against minority representation. Rather than wait for the courts to sort it out, Republican officials want to make these maps law — at the cost of over $1 million. Though they refuse to restore all of the funds cut from public education, Republicans seem to have the political will to spend taxpayer money trying to pass discriminatory maps.
The Ugly: “The Republican Party Doesn’t Want Black People to Vote”
I was appalled that a Tea Party activist told a Republican audience in Dallas, “I’m going to be real honest with you – the Republican Party doesn’t want black people to vote if they’re going to vote 9-to-1 for the Democrats.” This statement should echo all the way to the United States Supreme Court and serve as a stark reminder that we still need Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. It’s time to stop the deliberate disenfranchisement of minority voters and work to draw maps that offer every Texan an equal and fair chance to elect their representatives.
Support Local Food in Dove Springs
This summer promises a bumper crop of fresh, local produce. I’m excited to share with you the launch of the Dove Springs Neighborhood Farm Stand, hosted by Urban Roots and the Sustainable Food Center.
The Neighborhood Farm Stand will be open every Wednesday from June 5 to July 17, from 9:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. at the Dove Springs Recreation Center, located at 5801 Ainez Drive.
Families using SNAP can take advantage of the Double Dollar Incentive Program when they make purchases at the market – that means $1 can buy $2 worth of healthy, local fruits and vegetables!
This is a great program that will provide greater access to nutritious food in Dove Springs while strengthening the local food system.
I hope you’ll join me in supporting this effort to spread healthy, nutritious food across our community.