Farm bill negotiations put food aid on the line

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The U.S. Senate approval of the 2012 farm bill last week has Vermont nutrition officials and advocates alike worried about funding for SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program formerly known as food stamps.
“The need for food (assistance) is at an all-time high,” said Jeanne Montross, executive director of Helping Overcome Poverty’s Effects in Middlebury. “Losses to the SNAP program are going to mean more people going hungry, and it’s going to lay an even higher burden on our food shelves.”
The bill, officially titled the Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act of 2012, determines U.S. Department of Agriculture funding and policy for the next five years. The largest portion of USDA funding, nearly 80 percent, goes to support food stamps and the agency’s other nutrition programs.
The Senate approved a bill that reduces spending by more than $23 billion over 10 years, with spending reductions primarily coming from agricultural programs. The bill also includes a $4.5 billion reduction in SNAP spending over 10 years, primarily by making changes to eligibility that would decrease benefits for some program recipients.
In Vermont, SNAP funds the 3SquaresVT food assistance program. Ames Robb, food and nutrition programs director at the Vermont Department for Children and Families, said the bill’s provisions could affect more than 10,000 people who receive 3SquaresVT funding. She said the state was also slated to increase benefits to 4,500 additional families, but if the Senate rules pass this may not be possible.
The House Agriculture Committee has not yet unveiled a draft of its farm bill, but that bill is expected to reach the floor sometime after July 11. Once both chambers of Congress unveil versions of the bill, it will go to a reconciliation committee that will merge the two versions.
Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., said members of the House will almost certainly call for much larger reduction in funding to the SNAP program. Earlier this year the Republican-controlled House passed a bill calling for a $30 billion cut in SNAP funding, though that bill never went anywhere. This time around, Welch said the process will not be any easier.
“This is going to be the big challenge in the House,” said Welch. “There’s going to be a huge debate.”
Vermont hunger advocates did celebrate a provision in the Senate bill that would allow families to use their SNAP benefits to purchase shares in Community Supported Agriculture programs, which provide fresh produce and other goods to shareholders direct from the farm.
But Dorrigen Keeney, program director at Hunger Free Vermont, noted the bill would also limit SNAP use to students in two-year, vocational or remedial programs, and it would limit the types of retailers who could participate in the SNAP program. Keeney said she fears this provision would restrict convenience stores from participating — in a rural state, she said, not everyone lives close to a full supermarket.
But Keeney is particularly concerned by a change in the way utilities deductions are calculated. Keeney explained that a number of years ago, officials at the state Agency of Human Services realized that families in subsidized or rental housing often weren’t receiving a full income deduction on their utility bills, since that was often rolled into rent payments. That meant these families also weren’t getting credit for their utilities payments when their 3SquaresVT benefits were calculated.
If the state provided those people with a small award from the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), they automatically received the standard utility deduction and qualified for more food assistance.
Keeney said other states saw what Vermont was doing picked up that strategy as well, managing to increase SNAP payments for what the Congressional Budget Office estimates is 500,000 families nationwide.
The CBO estimates that the Senate-approved bill would decrease benefits for those families by about $90 per month, on average. Hunger Free Vermont’s Keeney said that difference in benefit levels could make a big difference for people who aren’t making enough to buy nutritious food for their families.
“For some people who are right on the edge, $90 is the difference between being able to afford some meat and some vegetables. It’s not trivial,” said Keeney.
The Senate farm bill would require those receiving LIHEAP benefits to get at least $10 per year to qualify for that deduction, meaning that the state of Vermont would have to increase those LIHEAP payments to help those families continue to qualify for the deduction.
Keeney said the LIHEAP workaround may seem like a workaround to legislators in Washington, but that in reality it is helping a particularly vulnerable population.
“What in D.C. they consider to be a gimmick is not a gimmick,” she said. “It’s a way to get people, particularly seniors and those with disabilities, enough food stamps.”
She said there’s an attitude in Washington that people are cheating the system, but that it’s untrue.
“The assumption behind this is somehow that (these families) don’t need it, and that’s what’s so disturbing,” she said. “They have no faces behind the numbers.”
Ames Robb said she hopes that if the LIHEAP provision passes into law, the state will be able to find the money to increase its LIHEAP budget and continue to cover people at the higher cost. Currently, the state is paying each family just $5 in LIHEAP benefits. If that’s not possible, Robb said, it may make it harder for families to pay for food.
“This doesn’t mean that these families would lose SNAP benefits,” said Robb. “But they might be getting less money.”
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said he’s not happy with the reduction in SNAP funding that passed the Senate, but that there were many more severe options on the table.
“We are far better on SNAP than we could have been,” he said. “You’ve got a lot of new people in the Senate and the House who want to cut all of these programs.”
Meanwhile, the House earlier this year took aim at provisions from the 2008 farm bill, which raised the income requirements for SNAP eligibility, and at the provisions in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, which raised the level of benefits for all people on the program.
Robb said there’s been an 88 percent increase in participants in 3SquaresVT since 2008, accompanied by a 120 percent increase in benefits. She said participant levels have started to level off in the past couple months, but that it’s too soon to say whether demand for food assistance is starting to decline.
She said there’s no question that the state would be hard pressed to handle the budget cuts that are likely to end up in the House bill.
“We’re certainly concerned. I think it could leave tens of thousands of families who need this help without a way to get it,” she said.
And Montross said most people with food stamps still struggle to find enough money for food — they are allowed to come to the HOPE emergency food shelf. Reductions to the SNAP program will likely mean more traffic for HOPE, and more demand on the organization’s already strained resources.
“That’s what keeps us awake at night,” said Montross. “This is not the time to be cutting the SNAP benefit.”
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at [email protected].

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