Few pieces of federal legislation have as much control over the food we eat as the Farm Bill. Reauthorized by Congress approximately every five years, the Farm Bill contains numerous titles that cover everything from food safety and organic food production, to crop subsidies and food assistance. The Farm Bill represents a massive portion of government spending (about $489 billion from 2014-2018, according to the Congressional Budget Office), and plays an important role in the quality and accessibility of food in America.
The Senate is expected to take up the Farm Bill soon.
When Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Texas, introduced the House’s version of the Farm Bill in April, family farm groups and hunger relief advocates were disappointed in the dramatic, and potentially harmful, changes to many of the existing Farm Bill programs, such as deep cuts in conservation funding and strict new work requirements for participants in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). For the nearly 500,000 Minnesota families who rely on programs like SNAP, the Farm Bill may determine their ability to feed their children.
As a registered dietitian who works on the ground to increase healthy food access for economically disadvantaged children and families, I understand the physical, mental, emotional and academic consequences of food insecurity on children. While cuts to SNAP and other food assistance programs may be part of a short-term political calculus, the costs to children and families living in poverty are long-lasting. Despite SNAP’s effectiveness, it has emerged as a key point of contention in the Farm Bill debate, and disagreements over the program were cited as a reason the bill was voted down in the House.
The largest portion of the Farm Bill is the Nutrition Title, which accounts for nearly 80 percent of all Farm Bill spending. This title includes programs like SNAP and others that increase low-income Americans’ access to nutritious, affordable food. One such program, the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentives (FINI) program, was created to help SNAP participants purchase more fresh fruits and vegetables. The now-defunct Farm Bill that emerged from the House Agriculture Committee called for an increase in FINI funding to $275 million over the life of the bill. This would have been an important win not only for Americans who rely on SNAP to feed their families, but also for farmers growing nutritious foods on increasingly thin margins.
When it comes to the other proposed changes to SNAP, however, the picture is not as rosy. Against the wishes of Minnesota’s Rep. Collin Peterson and other Democrats, Republicans on the House Agriculture Committee called for changes that would have created more barriers to food access for low-income Americans. Some of the changes included raising the age requirement for so-called able-bodied adults without dependents to work at least 20 hours per week, increasing eligibility requirements, and making it more difficult for states to issue work requirement exemptions. Opponents contend that SNAP already includes work requirements and many states lack the administrative infrastructure to set up the proposed employment training programs called for in the House version. As a result, nearly 1 million people may have been forced off the SNAP program over the next decade.
Although implied, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program is more than simply a supplement to many of the more than 40 million people (mostly children, the elderly or disabled) who received SNAP benefits in 2017. By one estimate, half of all American children will receive SNAP benefits at some point during their childhood.
Federal funding for initiatives that facilitate healthy food access is critical, especially in light of evidence that the obesity problem in the United States continues to worsen. What’s more, obesity and other diet-related diseases (such as type II diabetes and cancer) are more likely to affect people with lower incomes. This makes SNAP and other federal food assistance programs even more powerful levers for health. Public health professionals and legislators must work collaboratively and creatively to ensure access to high-quality food for all Americans, no matter their income. The 2018 Farm Bill is an opportunity to do just that.
Katie Costello is a registered dietitian and a Community Food Systems program associate at the Institute for Agriculture & Trade Policy.
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