You might have been hearing about the Farm Bill through social media or in the news. Maybe something about “food stamps” or “SNAP,” and a vote in Congress. There’s talk of major changes and millions of people losing access to food. So what is going on? And what is the Farm Bill anyways?
The history :
The Farm Bill has its roots in the Great Depression of the 1930s. During the Great Depression, many people were struggling to afford even the most basic necessities, like food. That meant long lines at soup kitchens and other charities. Meanwhile, farmers were growing more crops than anyone could buy, and prices for crops became so low that farms were facing ruin. The government responded by creating programs that supported farm incomes and helped consumers get the food they needed.
After the economy recovered in the 1940s, the food stamp program was ended. Later, in the late 1960s, the general public became more and more aware of the severe poverty that persisted in America. The U.S. was a wealthy nation and a world power, but some of its citizens were still unable to afford food. Congress acted by creating the modern Farm Bill, a combination of food stamps (known today as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP) and financial supports for agriculture.
Since the 1960s, Congress has passed a new Farm Bill every 4 to 6 years. It’s a complicated collection of conservation and environmental programs, farmers markets and rural development grants, support for major crops like corn and cotton, SNAP, and more. The fact that it affects such a wide range of stakeholders usually forces Congress to compromise and pass a bipartisan bill.
What’s happening now:
This year, House Republicans in charge of writing the Farm Bill did not come up with a bipartisan version. The bill would make major changes to the SNAP program. The bill would cover fewer SNAP recipients by lowering the income cap for SNAP recipients, make it harder for States to enroll eligible people, and it would reduce SNAP benefits for people who need States’ help paying their utility bills.
Work requirements for SNAP:
The biggest change would come in the form of new rules for work requirements. SNAP already has work requirements that apply to able-bodied adults who are 18-49 years old and don’t have kids. If these adults are not working 20 hours a week, or participating in a qualified employment-training or volunteering program, they can lose access to SNAP. The House Farm Bill would expand the requirements to include adults with children over 6 years old and people up to 59 years old. It would also make changes that would kick people out of SNAP much more quickly for not meeting the requirements.
Shifting responsibility to States:
These proposals were met with a lot of criticism. Many critics point out that millions of Americans would lose some or all of the help they get through SNAP. Others have said that States won’t be able to offer enough training programs or afford to track every SNAP recipient on a monthly basis. There are questions about just how helpful the training programs, such as resume writing classes, really are for people in SNAP. While most people in SNAP who can work do have jobs, many unemployed SNAP recipients are already trained and actively seeking employment.
Impact on School and Summer Meals:
Under the current Farm Bill, many States use a system called “categorical eligibility” to make enrolling in SNAP easier for people who have already been approved for other income-based programs. The House proposal would make changes to categorical eligibility that would cause hundreds of thousands of kids to lose access to free breakfast and lunch at school and summer meals. The House also adopted an amendment to the Farm Bill that would force the Department of Agriculture to reevaluate nutrition standards for school food. Child nutrition advocates worked hard to pass improved school food standards in 2010, and many fear that this amendment is an attempt to get unhealthy food back into schools.
With these criticisms from moderate Republicans and Democrats, plus objections from conservatives who wanted more spending cuts, the bill did not pass the House. What’s next for the Farm Bill is not clear. The House Republicans could try to pass their bill again. In the Senate, Democrats and Republicans are working together on a bipartisan Farm Bill. Congress might also decide they cannot get a new Farm Bill this year, and choose to wait until after November’s elections.
Whatever happens could have a big impact on the way we grow and purchase food in the United States. For details on the Farm Bill and what it might mean in New York and around the country, you can visit the websites of Hunger Solutions and National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. Healthi Kids will continue to monitor the developments, because we know how many kids in Rochester depend on SNAP and other programs funded through the Farm Bill.