Farm Bill Update

Allison Burket
March 12, 2012

Allison is an Emerson Hunger Fellow, returning to DC after five months working with the Detroit Food Policy Council. She’ll be working with the Domestic Policy team, as is excited to have the opportunity to witness and report back from her first Congressional hearing on food policy.

In the wake of Congress’s collapsed deficit-reduction process last fall, which included attempts at fast-tracking the Farm Bill, the Senate Agriculture Committee has returned to a more traditional Farm Bill reauthorization process with a series of hearings this month. This is an important process for those concerned about hunger in America and, in particular, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps).

Last Wednesday, the Senate Agriculture Committee held a hearing entitled “Healthy Food Initiatives, Local Production, and Nutrition,”  featuring Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and number of community-based organizations and individuals.  While largely focused on the economic, health, and environmental benefits of supporting local and regional food systems, the hearing also provided a forum for both witnesses and committee members to emphasize the importance of protecting and strengthening key food and nutrition programs.

The Farm Bill, a comprehensive piece of legislation that sets U.S agricultural policy in five or six year increments, was last passed in 2008. This means that a number of crucial food and nutrition programs – including SNAP – are set to expire at the end of 2012.  Last fall, Senate and House Agriculture Committee leaders proposed dramatic cuts to SNAP to the deficit-reduction super-committee. This attempt at a fast-tracked Farm Bill process fell apart towards the end of 2011 -- see our November 22  and December 13  Weekly Updates for more details.

While the current Farm Bill will expire at the end of the year, there is a chance that our legislators won’t finalize and pass a new Farm Bill this year. Senate Agriculture Committee Chair Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) has made clear her commitment to getting a Farm Bill written and passed before the end of the year, though others say that gridlock and the politics around an election year make this unlikely.

Nonetheless, in Wednesday’s hearing, Stabenow highlighted her commitment to protecting federal nutrition programs and other programs that “protect against hunger, improve nutrition and health outcomes, and strengthen community-based initiatives that link farmers with consumers and increase access to healthy food.”  She flagged and submitted for the record a letter from 49 groups (including RESULTS) making clear the importance of a Farm Bill that protects and improves these programs.

In his testimony, Secretary Vilsack also emphasized the importance of federal nutrition programs, describing SNAP as an important “bridge to self-sufficiency” that, in 2010, “helped lift 3.9 million Americans – including 1.7 million children – out of poverty.” Ann Goodman from the Cleveland Food Bank spoke to the importance of federal programs not only in supporting the work of food banks, but in meeting the enormous need that emergency food providers cannot. While private charities play an important part of meeting need, it's important to remember that but all the food churches and food banks provide is equivalent to just 6 percent of the food provided by federal nutrition programs.

He and other witnesses also highlighted public and private initiatives that help expand SNAP participants and other low-income families’ access to healthy and affordable foods, including Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) access and double-dollar incentive programs at farmers markets, initiatives to expand healthy and affordable food retail options in low-income neighborhoods, and opportunities to incubate small and community-based food businesses.

To learn more about the Farm Bill and how you can get involved, visit our SNAP page or visit the website of the Food Research and Action Center.