by Edith Tucker

Congresswoman Annie Kuster, a Democrat from the 2nd Congressional District, held a virtual meeting with local New Hampshire food distributors and producers on Monday, Feb. 8 from her home office.

She chose to mark her reappointment to the House Agriculture Committee by discussing the local food system and how Granite State farmers can be supported in their efforts to grow a thriving and accessible network of local producers and food distributors, all of whom who have been challenged for nearly a year by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Kuster, now beginning her fifth term, served on the Ag Committee for her first three two-year terms (2013 to 2019).

“I was the first member of Congress from New Hampshire in decades to serve on this committee,” she explained. Kuster will serve on two subcommittees: Nutrition, Oversight and Department Operations and Conservation and Forestry. “I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to bring New Hampshire’s voice to the table once again. Our state’s agricultural landscape is characterized by small family farms and diverse growing operations, and we’re fortunate to be seeing a growing momentum to ‘buy local.’

“The pandemic challenged – and continues to challenge – our communities and systems in many ways, and the food system was especially affected,” she noted. “I’m interested to hear how it impacted your businesses and the creative solutions you developed to keep your employees and communities safe while also making sure that people were fed.

“Unfortunately, the pandemic is not the only major challenge our communities face. We know that climate change will continue to have major impacts on everything, from our economy to our agricultural industry,” she said. “And we must also do a better job of addressing racial and economic equity, ensuring that all have access to healthy food and being part of our food system as consumers, producers and beyond.”

Erin Hale, the research and network coordinator the NH Food Alliance, jumpstarted the discussion, which included specialists from UNH Extension, the Hanover Co-op in the Upper Valley, the Warner Public Market and the Kearsarge Gore Farm, also in Warner.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the vulnerabilities of our food supply to global and national disruptions and exacerbated existing inequities in the food system,” Hale pointed out. “Our innovative and adaptable New Hampshire producers, harvesters and food businesses have played a critical role in keeping food on our tables, but they need support to continue to grow and scale up to feed a greater share of our residents. Meanwhile, the COVID-19-related economic downturn has substantially increased food insecurity in our state, underlining the importance of improving access to healthy food for everyone through federal nutrition programs.” Hale cited programs such as the Granite State Market Match, SNAP Double and Farm to School as benefitting both food producers and people in need.

“Before the pandemic, one in six of those living in our state was food insecure and that number has now doubled,” she said. “We appreciate the continued support of both our Congressional representatives – Kuster and Chris Pappas of Manchester – as they’ve responded to COVID-19 and worked to build a resilient, sustainable and equitable food system here in New Hampshire.”

Allan Reetz, director of public and government affairs for Hanover Co-op, said, “At the co-op, we know the benefits of a strong farm economy come from hard work and cooperative partnerships here and in D.C.” Economic caution kept the co-op from moving quickly to adopt curbside pickup and other innovative responses used by many far smaller venues, he explained. The co-op operates four grocery stores and carries some 40,000 items, of which 4,000 are local, originating within a 100-mile radius. In the early weeks of the pandemic, the co-op increased the number of its leadership meetings to deal with rapidly changing conditions and communicated far more often with its frontline employees.

During her prior service on the House Ag Committee, Kuster helped expand both the funding and the geographic outreach of the four-state Northern Border Regional Commission, strengthened the dairy safety net, supported veteran farming and small organic farms, boosted rural development and helped protect nutrition assistance.

Roundtable participants urged her to continue to be sensitive to the small-sized farms that are typical in NH and across New England. They asked her to help resist the “one-size-fits-all” approach to food safety, including the federal traceability rules now being proposed. The over-consolidation of meat processing plants across the country, plus the number of large-scale mergers and acquisitions in the food industry, are also causing concern.