Experts Weigh in on the Food-less Farm Bill

It’s been one week since the House of Representatives voted 216-208 to pass their farm bill – minus the nutrition title, which includes the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), also known as the food stamp program. As in, no funding for food stamps (or any other form of emergency food assistance) included – a radical departure from the history of the legislative behemoth. The Senate has yet to take up the bill, but Senate Ag chair Debbie Stabenow (D – MI) vowed Tuesday that nutrition programs would remain in the bill, and President Obama will assuredly veto the legislation should it arrive in its current incarnation. Suffice it to say that the hyper-partisan proceedings churned up quite a political storm, a rarity for what has historically been a bipartisan and successful legislative process.

We’ve been following the 2012 2013 Farm Bill’s progress for over a year on Ecocentric; you’ll recall that programs included in the bill are currently operating – or not – courtesy of interim legislation that expires on September 30. From the beginning, SNAP funding proposals have been a lightning rod for ongoing debate between parties about our social safety nets. This twist – completely eviscerating the bill of any nutrition funding – is one we and others have found surprising and unprecedented.

Not a few sustainable food advocates have suggested that meaningful change in all areas would be more possible if the bill were in fact split, but between last fall’s passage of an extension that killed funding for many important conservation programs, and more recently watching Republican reps rail against nutrition funding, we highly doubt that our version of “meaningful change” is the mission of this round of political posturing. And while two general farm groups – the American Farm Bureau Federation and National Farmers Union – opposed the bill, "the National Corn Growers Association, National Pork Producers Council, and National Council of Farmer Cooperatives issued statements in support, and groups representing cotton, rice, sugar, and peanut growers were also supporting passage according to Capitol Hill staffers."

Put another way, the House actually managed to unite big farmers, environmental groups and anti-hunger groups, a rare – and almost certainly accidental – feat.

Remember that, according to the USDA Food and Nutrition Service, 76 percent of SNAP households include a child, an elderly person or a disabled person and have a gross monthly income of $744. As the number of unemployed grew by 94 percent between 2007 and 2011, there was a 70 percent increase in SNAP participation. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projects it will take until 2022 for unemployment and SNAP numbers to return to pre-recession levels. In 2015, we should start to see some reductions in those numbers.

Below, a roundup of suggested reading on the latest farm bill action – we’ve tried to give you a range of expert opinion here. Stabenow has called for the House to begin talks on the bill promptly as there remain only six weeks of time in Congress’ session before our current extension expires. So the waiting game continues.

Paul Krugman in The New York Times, The Hunger Games:

To fully appreciate what just went down, listen to the rhetoric conservatives often use to justify eliminating safety-net programs. It goes something like this: "You’re personally free to help the poor. But the government has no right to take people’s money" — frequently, at this point, they add the words "at the point of a gun" — "and force them to give it to the poor."
It is, however, apparently perfectly O.K. to take people’s money at the point of a gun and force them to give it to agribusinesses and the wealthy.

Richard Oswald, Daily Yonder, Letter from Langdon: The No-Food Farm Bill:

Food stamps give bottom-line nutrition to the average hungry American for less than $5 a day — about $1,800 a year. That's little more than one-10th what I spend on food for my family of two, and the part of the farm bill the U.S. House of Representatives wouldn't even consider.

Carolyn Lochhead, San Francisco Gate, House OKs Farm Bill – But Leaves Out Food Stamps:

The result was a razor thin, 216-208, partisan passage of a bill that managed to infuriate stakeholders, including the Congressional Black Caucus, environmental groups, the conservative Club for Growth and Taxpayers for Common Sense.

Patty Lovera, Food & Water Watch, Farm Bill Update: “An extraordinary political spectacle”:

Food & Water Watch, and almost every other group working on the farm bill, opposes splitting up the bill this way, for a lot of reasons. Most importantly, it makes SNAP incredibly vulnerable to draconian cuts that have become a priority of many conservative members of Congress. Dealing with SNAP as a stand alone bill – or not passing a separate nutrition bill at all – creates opportunities for drastically cutting funding for the program or making other radical changes like turning it into a block grant program.

Corby Kummer, The Atlantic, Farm Bill Deal to Hungry Americans: You’re On Your Own:

Why not keep the agricultural parts, even if they benefit only industrial agriculture, in what's called the farm bill, and call the food-assistance portion what it is? That would get the farm bill back on the rails, and stop letting SNAP debates hijack every vote. Here's why not: because that means, as anyone in the anti-hunger community recognizes, pushing the 47 million Americans on food stamps onto an ice floe.

Michael R. Dimock, A Game-Changer for the Farm Bill and SNAP:

Most Americans neither understand nor support the $5 to $7 billion per year we have been spending on crop and insurance subsidies. For nearly thirty years agribusiness and big food have lobbied to support SNAP. But they did it to ensure that the hunger lobby supported subsidies for corn, soy, wheat, rice and sugar…By enriching the largest farmers, we also enrich the industrial food complex comprised of banks, insurance, GMO seed, chemical and industrial food corporations that churn out cheap, highly processed and fast food that undermines public health.

Environmental Working Group, GOP Passes The "Most Fiscally Irresponsible Farm Legislation in History":

House Republicans voted today for a 'farm only' farm bill that expands crop insurance subsidies for the most successful farm businesses and fails to renew programs that help feed the nation’s hungriest children.

Marion Nestle, Congressional Posturing: House Republicans (no Democrats) Pass Farm Bill Without Food Stamps:

House Republicans know this bill isn’t going any further.  Hence: politics.  Their purpose? Leaving food stamps vulnerable to severe restrictions and budget cutting.