Food forum picks up where roundtable left off, backers say

Washington state lawmakers are considering a bill to support a forum to develop recommendations for improving the production and distribution of food. The Farm Bureau and Washington Policy Center are asking legislators to make sure the forum doesn't follow the example of the Washington State Food System Roundtable.

OLYMPIA — The Washington Farm Bureau and a free-market policy center say they are concerned a new state-funded panel will become a platform for espousing more regulations on farmers.

The food policy forum was authorized by lawmakers a year ago and is just getting organized by the Washington State Conservation Commission.

The forum is charged with making recommendations to lawmakers in the fall on improving “food systems.” It has yet to set goals or have members, but it’s also already associated with the Washington State Food System Roundtable.

The roundtable is the product of an older state government initiative. Made up primarily of government agencies and nonprofit organizations, the roundtable will soon release a “25-year vision for a healthy, just and sustainable food system.”

House Bill 1562 calls on the food policy forum to “coordinate with” and “build on” the work of the roundtable. The bill also would push the deadline for making recommendations to the Legislature to 2018.

A draft of the roundtable’s report offered a wide range of goals, including minimizing greenhouse gases, protecting shorelines and “incentivizing third-party audits that ensure socially just farmworker conditions.”

The roundtable weighed in on subjects as diverse as wages, soda taxes and breast-feeding in the workplace.

The roundtable’s co-chairman Vic Colman, a public health consultant, told the Capital Press that he did not expect the final report to differ much from the draft.

The state Department of Agriculture, which was part of the roundtable, complained last year the group had strayed from its original mission to look at hunger, nutrition and farmland preservation.

The Farm Bureau’s director of government relations, Tom Davis, made the same charge at a hearing Feb. 2 in front of the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee. “We felt it’s been more divisive than unifying,” he said.

The Farm Bureau, Davis said, would support a forum to “make sure that every child that goes to bed at night has a full stomach, and that’s really what we think we should focus on.”

HB 1562’s prime sponsor, Rep. Mia Gregerson, D-SeaTac, said she did not intend for her bill to be an extension of the roundtable and that she would be open to amending the legislation. She said she wanted the forum to unite people.

“The food system in Washington state is very complicated, and there hasn’t been a forum where everybody is considered equal in order to make sure that we’re taking care of the people of Washington state,” she said.

The conservation commission estimates extending the life of the food policy forum to 2018 would cost $209,000, in addition to the $50,000 appropriated last year.

Washington Policy Center agriculture policy analyst Madilynne Clark told the House committee that the market responds to food demands.

“We are a very trade dependent nation, so why are we focusing on local food when we can already let the market provide good, strong agriculture by doing what we do best — grow potatoes, grow apples, export our crops?” she said. “My concern is this bill will make us have one more layer of bureaucratic regulations that farmers will have to navigate.”

Colman said he anticipated criticism, but didn’t agree that the roundtable took on too much. “We’re trying to grab all the elements you would want to grab in a food system,” he said.

Conservation commission policy director Ron Shultz said he expects the forum to keep a tighter focus, emphasizing how small farmers can distribute their crops, increasing the supply of locally grown food.

“I think the roundtable did stray too far,” he said. “I think the forum is an opportunity to rethink it.”

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