Navy-veteran Lenny Evans Miles, Jr. operates Bluestem Farms LLC, in Chestertown, MD. USDA Photo by Preston Keres

On Veterans Day, Why Aren’t Congress and the USDA Looking Out for Those Who Served?

, senior analyst, Food and Environment | November 11, 2018, 12:39 am EST
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This post is a part of a series on Farm Bill 2018

This Veterans Day is particularly significant, marking the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I. Though US veterans from that long-ago war are gone, some 20 million of their brethren are with us today. Our culture honors them at sporting events and other public venues, but we also have an ugly history of mistreating those who served—from returning Vietnam vets being spat upon to mismanaged healthcare programs and corruption at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

And right now, misguided decisions by the Secretary of Agriculture and members of Congress threaten to reverse progress for service members and veterans who want to work the land and feed their neighbors.

In 2014, Congress recognized the ways that military veterans are particularly suited to growing food, and how farming can help former soldiers cope with the effects of war. That year’s farm bill called out veterans as a distinct group eligible for support under the US Department of Agriculture’s beginning farmers programs, opening access to grants and low-interest-rate loans to get started and to innovate.

(For more on how vets-turned-farmers are continuing to serve their communities and reduce hunger, see this 2016 post by former UCS Kendall Science Fellow Andrea Basche, now an assistant professor at the University of Nebraska.)

Fast forward to 2018, and both the Trump administration and its allies in the House of Representatives are pursuing farm bill changes that would hurt those same veterans, along with active-duty military personnel.

The two principal actors—Representative Mike Conaway (R-TX) and Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue—should know better. Conaway, who chairs the House agriculture committee, is an Army veteran and senior member of the House Armed Services Committee; his biography page is emblazoned with an image of him with service members in fatigues. Over at the USDA, Perdue is a former captain in the Air Force, and just last week he professed his gratitude to the nation’s veterans.

But as usual, actions speak louder than words.

The Perdue/Conaway attack on SNAP hurts military personnel and veterans

Take the positions Conaway and Perdue have pushed on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps). We’ve written extensively about the punitive SNAP program changes the Trump administration and Rep. Conaway have pursued this year. The farm bill Conaway wrote and passed through the House in June would add unnecessary and burdensome new work requirements to the program. And that would effectively reduce or eliminate benefits for millions of people.

Now, Conaway and his caucus would have you believe that SNAP is plagued with participants who would rather collect benefits than work, but in fact, most SNAP beneficiaries who can work, do. Another fact? The SNAP rolls include many active-duty military personnel and veterans. A 2016 report from the Government Accountability Office found that about 23,000 active-duty troops used SNAP in 2013, then the most recent year for which data were available.

Moreover, analysis of Census Bureau data by the independent Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) found that nearly 1.4 million veterans live in households that participate in SNAP, including 97,000 vets in Conaway’s own state of Texas. CBPP analysts have detailed the ways these veterans would be particularly vulnerable to the ill-conceived new work requirements Conaway and Perdue (and President Trump himself) have aggressively pushed.

A needless farm bill fight has left veteran-farmers without resources

As a result of their intransigence, other programs that benefit veterans (and the rest of us) have been left in the lurch. The congressional standoff on SNAP, which persisted all summer and into the fall, led to the expiration of the existing farm bill, without a replacement, on September 30. My colleagues have written about the effect of the lapsed legislation on agricultural research and local food programs. But the 39 programs stranded without funding when the farm bill expired also included the USDA’s Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, which provides education, mentoring, and technical assistance grants new farmers—and which mandates that at least 5 percent of funds support programs and services that address the needs of veteran farmers and ranchers.

Now, Rep. Conaway has reportedly scheduled a Veterans Day meeting with his counterpart on the House ag committee, at which they will presumably discuss the fate of the farm bill. Perhaps the timing will keep veteran top-of-mind as he decides whether to move toward a farm bill that will help them—or continue to promote policy changes that will hurt them.

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