Ladies and Gentlemen, We Have a Farm Bill!

On Tuesday, the Senate voted to approve the $956 billion Farm Bill which passed out of the House last Thursday. Next stop: President Obama's desk for signature. If you've been following this legislative odyssey with Ecocentric, you know this has been over two years in the making. (As Sam Brasch at Modern Farmer put it, "Sure, it's 496 days behind schedule, but you know what they say in Washington: better ridiculously late than never.")

Altogether, the final bill is not as bad as it could have been. The House proposed $40 billion cuts in SNAP and nutrition aid; instead, the figure is $8.7 billion. The justifiably controversial and horrendous so-called "King Amendment" (courtesy of Iowa Republican Rep. Steve King) is not in the final bill either. The King Amendment would have prohibited states from passing stricter farm product and agricultural regulations than those of other states. Patty Lovera at Food & Water Watch has a good rundown of What Could Have Been in terms of Big Ag-supported policy.

Positive caveats aside, the long-feared deep cuts made to the Nutrition title have angered many good food and hunger advocates. The final cuts will primarily affect over 850,000 people living in 16 states who earned additional SNAP benefits if enrolled in LIHEAP, the government's Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program. The cuts average about $90 per family; in New York State, home to 300,000 of those affected, cuts will average $200 per month.

Appearing on MSNBC's All In with Chris Hayes Thursday night, chef and food policy advocate Tom Colicchio spoke strongly against the funding cuts, saying that "We shouldn't have a farm bill that makes one person hungry." Coming on the heels of November's SNAP benefit reduction, which resulted in a $29 per month cut for households of three people, the reduction of aid to the lowest-income Americans is extremely concerning to hunger organizations. The Food Bank for New York City reported earlier in January that following those cuts, almost one half of the city's food pantries and soup kitchens had run out of food (or types of food required to make other food). 85 percent reported an increase in visitors compared with November 2012. Tripling the amount of the monthly cut is concerning indeed.

Meanwhile, the direct payment crop subsidy program is ending, to be replaced with a new crop insurance subsidy program that critics including the NRDC say will encourage risky production methods, rather than incentivizing more sustainable practices. While few will mourn the loss of direct payments, the New York Times editorial board opined that the program is "still too generous to big farmers." The subsidies will not be means-tested - and not for nothing, but the money hypothetically saved by means-testing could have helped replenish the Nutrition title's budget. (Colicchio was more pointed on the subject: "It's a Big Ag giveaway on the backs of poor people.")

There is one bright spot here: the bill includes a new $100 million program which allows low-income families to double their SNAP benefits when used at farmers' markets. Modeled after successful pilot programs in various states, as well as Wholesome Wave's Double Value Coupon program, the new Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive program will hopefully help close some of the gap left by eliminated SNAP benefits.

As for the rest? Time will tell, just as it will when evaluating the bill's other new policies and cuts.