Why Support a Flawed Farm Bill?

January 29, 2014 | 3:36 pm
Karen Perry Stillerman
Deputy Director

After more than two years of twists, turns, delays, and unfathomable political machinations, the House of Representatives has just passed a new Farm Bill—that massive, 5-year piece of legislation that governs what our nation’s agriculture and food system looks like. This should be cause for celebration…but my reaction is much more tempered. As an advocate for a healthier, more sustainable food system, I like some pieces of the bill very much. As a person who thinks that no American in 2014 should go hungry, I also worry about some of its provisions.

But weighing the bill as a whole—because at the end of the day, that’s how it comes to us—my colleagues and I at UCS made a decision to support it, and to encourage others to support it as well. It wasn’t an easy decision, nor one we made lightly.

ebt-etcA mixed bag on food assistance

Many people are understandably anguished about the most talked-about part of the bill, the policy change that will, in effect, cut $8 billion over 10 years from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program—SNAP, formerly food stamps. That’s hard to stomach when you consider that efforts to curb farm subsidies, particularly for millionaires, were abandoned at the last minute. And though the SNAP cut still seems like a lot, especially at a time of lingering high unemployment, it’s actually far, far lower than what was passed by the House last fall.

Of course, this is where UCS’s expertise on anti-hunger programs ends. We’re agriculture experts, after all. So we turn to others to better understand what these SNAP cuts really mean. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, for example, a liberal-leaning think tank, concluded the new bill is a “reasonable compromise” compared to that earlier House-passed bill. Here’s what they said in a commentary on their web site earlier this week:

The proposed conference agreement drops the draconian House provisions, and its one SNAP cut curbs a dubious practice that SNAP’s congressional champions didn’t envision or intend. There’s no denying that the 4 percent of beneficiaries who would be affected are low-income people who would face a significant benefit reduction. But congressional rejection of the agreement because of this provision would risk future harm to far larger numbers of low-income people who rely on SNAP.

Defeating the agreement almost certainly would merely postpone the tightening of the SUA provision; now that the loophole has come to light, it won’t withstand public scrutiny, and it will be closed sooner or later anyway, with its closing widely viewed as a reasonable reform. Meanwhile, congressional rejection of the proposed conference agreement would likely push the farm bill and SNAP reauthorization into the next Congress—thereby rolling the dice for the more than 45 million people who constitute the other 96 percent of SNAP recipients.

That sounds a little like the lesser of two evils. But our friend Oran Hesterman at the Fair Food Network—they mean what their name says—reveals more of a silver lining in an op-ed yesterday explaining his support for today’s bill:

In plain speak, the [bill] creates the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive Program expanding projects to increase the value of food stamps when used at farmers markets.

Don’t let the simplicity of the idea fool you about its potential. I believe it has the power to remake federal nutrition assistance. The concept in various forms has been tested in more than 25 states. Farm bill passage would allow it to be expanded across the nation…

…With incentive programs like those supported by the farm bill, we can begin to turn SNAP from strictly an anti-hunger program into an anti-hunger and pro-health program. We can quite literally pay the farmer now, instead of the doctor later.

I understand why my friends worry that the farm bill reduces SNAP spending too much. But this is the best chance we have of protecting the integrity of this program, which is critical to the food security of low-income Americans.

Building a healthier future—the long view

Like UCS, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and the Fair Food Network are taking a long view toward the healthier, fairer, more sustainable future we all seek. In addition to the program Oran pointed to above, we see other building blocks in the bill passed today. Some of these “seeds of change,” including provisions to expand farmers markets to more American communities and help organic farmers grow healthy foods that don’t poison our air, water, and soil, are detailed in a press statement we released yesterday.

A long view is what UCS Outreach Coordinator Ashley Elles had in mind when she wrote to UCS’s 400,000 supporters yesterday, urging them to tell Congress to finally pass this bill. Here’s what she told them:

I’ll be the first to say it: this is another Farm Bill that largely maintains the status quo when it comes to food policy.

At the same time, the legislation includes crucial wins for smart, forward-thinking investments in a healthier food and farm system. Programs that we fought for—such as those supporting farmers markets, promoting smarter farming practices that protect our soil and water, and increasing access to healthy foods for those who are most in need—are all included in the final package. These are important steps towards the kind of healthy food system we need.

This is a tough call to make, but here’s our decision: we need this Farm Bill to pass. Transforming our food and farm system will take time, and many programs included in this legislation provide a critical foundation for healthy food and sustainable agriculture that we will continue to build on. Another failure to pass a Farm Bill could erode the progress we have made.

The key word there is “progress.” We’re not where we want to be yet, not by a long shot. But in our determination, we’re a step closer rather than a step farther back.

We must continue to build from here.

About the author

More from Karen

As deputy director in the Food and Environment Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), Karen Perry Stillerman manages campaigns and initiatives aimed at transforming and modernizing the American food system to make it safer and healthier for consumers, farmers and farm workers, rural communities, and the environment.