April 20, 2017

Passing a Tax Credit Bill for Farm Food Donations

Christine Bergmark

Christine Bergmark

CLF Guest Blogger

clb advising, llc

Food unites even the most unconventional of bedfellows. And connecting ideas and people across sectors to resolve problems is sometimes the best, and only, answer.

Like so much of the nation, Maryland has a serious hunger crisis. We are thankful to all of the emergency food providers, many of whom who bring much needed resources to our hunger community, mostly in the form of non-perishable food. This food—canned or dry goods, often— is calorie-laden, but it may not be nutrient-dense.

At the same time, while we are fortunate to have many farms, there are times when our farmers have a surplus of products or perishable goods that do not make it to market; this delicious, nutrient-dense food is often wasted… but for years, no one had been connecting the dots.

In Maryland, we devised a simple win-win-win solution to incentivize farmers to “donate” their fresh produce to pantries, soup kitchens and food hubs, by creating a modest tax credit that would cover the majority of farmers’ costs. This brings the health benefits of nourishing food to the hunger community and increases food security, while minimizing food waste. And by keeping local food within a reasonable distance, local donations decrease transportation and fuel use. Economy, health and environment all benefit from this simple and elegant solution.

Several years ago, we set about crafting a bill to establish a pilot program for the state of Maryland. Our thoughtful taskforce included a state senator, a state delegate, the State Comptroller’s office, the Secretary of Agriculture, farmers, members of the hunger relief community, and me, representing a regional agricultural development commission. Like any bill, once completed, it was full of compromises – the farmers wanted more compensation, the state less, but we crafted a bill that everyone could live with, with the caveat that it could be amended in future years as needed.

The first year we introduced the bill, it was passed unanimously by the Senate, but for unknown reasons, it never made it out of the House sub-committee. The second year, the exact same results. This year, hoping the ‘’third time’s a charm,” we simplified the language and introduced the bill again (SB 416 / HB 472).

One of the most satisfying moments of my life was on the day we testified for the bill. We came armed with letters of support from the hunger community, food councils, farmers’ market associations, environmental groups, farmers and more. We flew through the Senate hearing, with wonderfully positive words of support from the members. Our hearing in the House was the last one at the end of a very long day. Our panel went up first with the sponsor, then, instead of taking the remaining witnesses one by one, all three testifying organizations were called to the table together: Farm Bureau, Fair Farms and Future Harvest – all speaking in support of the bill. This might not have been a first, but these groups don’t ordinarily share similar perspectives. House members were extremely positive, and if anything, wanted to expand the region for the bill.

In Maryland, bills take no fewer than six hearings to pass in any given year. This month both versions of the bill (Senate and House) have passed. I’ve also learned in the process that bills often take three years to make it through the system, once again demonstrating that persistence for noble goals counts.

I am incredibly thankful to our sponsors over the three years, Senator Thomas “Mac” Middleton (Charles County) and Delegate Sally Jameson (Charles County), as well as all those who testified in person (Maryland Farm Bureau, Future Harvest, Fair Farms Maryland, Miller Farms, Even’ Star Farm) and the many great people who wrote in support of the bill. Our three-year pilot program, once signed into law, can be a model for other states. Our success is due to the many voices that brought in diverse perspectives, to educate (in the drafting of the bill), to persist (over three years), and to testify in a unified voice. Connecting ideas and people across sectors made our work successful.

Image:Vine-Ripened Tomatoes by David Adam KessCC BY-SA 4.0

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