Action Alert: Texas Local Foods Bills Go to the Senate

Three local foods bills have been approved by the Texas House and will be considered by the Texas Senate.  Two of them – the “cottage foods” bill (HB 970) and the DSHS “better communications” bill (HB 1392) – will be heard by the Senate Health and Human Services Committee next Tuesday, May 14.  Check out the Take Action section below to see how you can help keep these important bills moving forward.

We also have the report about the bills that did not make it in the More Information section at the end.

The cottage foods bill, HB 970, would allow small-scale producers who make low-risk foods at home to sell directly to consumers at farm stands, farmers’ markets, and community events, in addition to selling directly from their homes. Cottage food producers would not be regulated by the health departments, although they would have to get a food handlers’ license (which can be acquired through a 2-hour online course).

The DSHS Better Communications Act, HB 1392, would require the Department of State Health Services to respond to requests about how the food safety regulations apply to specific situations.  Since the regulations are written for large-scale operations, it’s often unclear what a small farmer or food producer has to do to comply.  HB 1392 would require the agency to state its interpretation of the law, and it would protect farmers who comply in good faith from being fined.  It’s a simple concept, but it’s very important to our farmers and food producers!

The farmers’ market bill, HB 1382, makes it easier for farmers and market vendors to provide samples of their products.  Current regulations are based on the conditions in brick-and-mortar facilities and pose unnecessary burdens at farmers markets. The bill simplifies and standardizes the requirements, making them practical for an outdoor venue.  The bill also clarifies the provisions for cooking demonstrations at markets and eliminates fees for educational demonstrations.

With only two weeks left in the legislative session, these bills will either move forward or die very quickly.  Please take action today!

 

TAKE ACTION


Action Item #1: Call your Senator

Call your Senator and ask him/her to co-sponsor all three bills.

It’s easy – just call the Capitol Switchboard at 512-463-4630.  Give them your zip code and ask to be connected to your State Senator’s office.  Then ask to speak to the staffer who is handling food bills.

Basic message: “My name is ___, and I am a constituent.  I urge Senator ______ to support all three of the local foods bills: HB 970, HB 1382, and HB 1392.  These bills make it easier for local farmers and producers to produce and sell food directly to consumers.  This benefits the farmers, small businesses, and consumers who are seeking out local foods, and ultimately the entire local economy.”

If you prefer email, you can look up who your State Senator is at http://www.fyi.legis.state.tx.us/Home.aspx and use this formula to send them an email:
Firstname.Lastname@ senate.state.tx.us (take out the space between @ senate)

 

Action Item #2: Come to the Hearing

Come to the Health & Human Services Committee hearing on Tuesday, May 14.  Remember, by signing in, you will be listed as a witness in support of the bill, whether or not you testify.  The witness list is important because, when the bill goes to the full Senate after the hearing, the Senators will look to see how many people were witnesses for or against the bill. Just 15 minutes can have an impact.

WHEN:  Tuesday, May 14, at 9 am.  Registration will start around 8:30 am, and continue while the hearing is in session.  The Committee will recess at 10:45, and then return sometime in the afternoon after the full Senate adjourns.

WHERE:  Texas Capitol, Senate Chamber (2nd floor).  MAP

PARKING:  There is reasonably priced parking at the Visitors Parking Lot.

WHAT TO DO:  Come to the Senate chamber and ask the clerk for a witness affirmation form.  The Senate committees are still using paper forms, so you will fill it out, sign it, and hand it back to the clerk.

Read the Committee hearing notice here

TIPS:
* You will need to fill out a separate form for each bill: HB 970 (cottage foods) and HB 1392 (DSHS Better Communications)

* Check that you are “FOR” the bill

* We recommend that you check the box for “Not Testifying” unless you have something very specific you want to testify about.  The Committee has to hear testimony on 20 bills, so we will maximize our chances if we have a lot of people register in support, but have only a very few people testify.

* If you do testify, keep it short!  No more than 3 minutes, and less is better.

* While you’re at the Capitol, you can increase your impact by taking a few minutes to visit your Senator in person. We’ll have flyers available with talking points on the bills.

 

Stay tuned for another alert when the Farmers’ Market bill, HB 1382, gets a hearing.  It was approved by the House a few days after our other two bills, so its hearing is likely to be next week.

MORE INFORMATION

With two weeks left in the legislative session, the deadline for the House to vote on House bills is past.  Now, any House bills that survived the process move on to the Senate.

FARFA supported nine local foods bills, ranging from raw milk to cottage foods to wastewater fees.  You can read about all of them on our website. Seven of the bills were approved by their substantive committees; all but three then died in the Calendars Committee without being set for a vote.  So 33% of our bills made it through the House.

To put this in context, out of all of the House bills filed, only 23% passed the House before this week’s deadline.  This has been a very difficult session, with literally thousands of bills dying.

The loss of the raw milk bill is particularly disappointing because it is the second session we have worked on it.

We did make significant progress on the raw milk bill this session compared with last session, though.  Last session, we couldn’t even get a vote in the Public Health Committee.  This session, we came out of Public Health Committee with a strong (9-2) vote.

The raw milk bill had strong bipartisan support and grassroots support from all over the state, and we think we would have won on the floor of the House had the bill been allowed to be voted on.  Unfortunately, the combined power of the Texas Medical Association and the Texas Dairymen’s Association killed the bill behind the closed doors of the Calendars Committee.

It will take time and more effort to build the strength we need to overcome the opposition.

At this point, our focus is on getting the three local foods bills — HB 970, HB 1382, and HB 1392 — through the Senate and signed by the Governor.  These three bills, alone and combined, will provide important reforms to help farmers and local food producers.

After session is over, we will be talking with our farmers and food producers about the next steps on raw milk and the other issues.

Changing our system is going to be a long process with many steps along the way.  Thank you for being part of this vital effort!