“The secretary and her colleagues were very interested in our findings and clearly agreed with many of our recommendations, based on their revised guidelines,” Kari Hamerschlag, EWG senior food and agriculture analyst in Oakland and report author, wrote in an e-mail.
But the group still found shortcomings with the California program.
Among those were too much funding — more than half — went to research, with relatively little left to expand grower markets or increase access to healthful food, according to the report.
Although many grants provided support for improving environmental stewardship, few focused on reducing fossil-fuel-based inputs, and only 1% of funding went toward organic agriculture, according to the report.
Hamerschlag said the lack of organic projects could partly be blamed on a lack of good submissions. But she said changes to the block grant program should increase organic participation.
“With the new guidelines specifically calling out the goal around increased acreage in organic and sustainable ag, groups that are working towards that goal will be more inclined to apply,” she wrote. “And, thus, I anticipate more organic-oriented projects to be submitted and approved in the coming years.”
The group also noted the lack of projects geared toward grower outreach, beginning and disadvantaged growers, ethnic producers and farm labor issues, according to the report.
In addition, the group questioned continued support for international trade, since several other federal programs help fund marketing domestic agricultural products in foreign countries.
“If growers want support for international marketing, they should go to the Market Assistance Program,” Hamerschlag said. ”We monitor funds from that program and found that the specialty crop industry already gets $23 million for international trade. So let’s put the block grant program to work to increase California and domestic consumption of fruits and vegetables while providing markets for growers. That’s a win-win.”
As part of proposal evaluation, the group wanted more information made public and provided to applicants about why they were approved or rejected.
Lyle said the department in 2010 began passing along comments from the stakeholder review committee.
“The quality of the feedback depends on the quality of the comments coming from the review committee,” he said. “If there’s a reason supplied — and we encourage the committee to be as detailed as possible — we provide that feedback.”