AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Texas lawmakers should pass laws that make it easier to produce and sell fruit and vegetables in poor communities to promote better health, farmers and activists testified Tuesday.
Judith McGeary, founder of the Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance, asked for new laws to cut through regulations that make it difficult for small "cottage food" producers to prepare and sell food to the public from vegetable gardens and chicken coops in urban areas. She complained particularly about Frisco, which used zoning laws to ban such businesses.
Property taxes also remain a challenge, McGreary said, with counties making it difficult for small farmers to get agricultural exemptions. She said new state laws could ease the burden on small farmers. Texas ranks 43rd in the nation in the number of farmer's markets and small farms per capita, she added.
Public Health Committee Chair Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, pointed out that some businesses have abused the agriculture exemption and that lawmakers must strike a balance.
Studies show children and adults who know where their food comes from, or are involved in community gardening, tend to eat healthier food, particularly in low-income communities.
Drew DeBerry, the deputy commissioner of the Texas Department of Agriculture, warned lawmakers that one out of every four children Texas is food insecure and one out of five is obese, two things that are related because poor people often spend their money on calorie-dense foods that lead to obesity. He said more emphasis should be placed on educating children to develop good eating habits.
"We need to teach our children about the three E's: education, exercise and eating right," he said.
The House Human Services and Public Health Committees are investigating why Texas has the second-highest rate of people having trouble getting enough food. In 2010, that was more than 4 million Texans.
Last year Texas distributed $5.32 billion in federal funds for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps. Texas recently surpassed California to become the largest distributor of SNAP funds, topping $500 million a month to 3.6 million Texans.
Rep. Susan King, R-Abilene, asked what could be done to allow more feral hogs to enter public food banks, because the animals are a major nuisance in Texas. State law allows hunters to give away deer meat, but federal law says only live feral hogs taken to a slaughter house can be distributed to the public.
"We don't have enough money to pay for everything we would like to have for a food source, and this is a ready food source that some people eat," King said. "Maybe we can do something to make that food source available."
State officials said a change in federal law would probably be required.