What’s in the Nutrition Title of the (Food and) Farm Bill?

, Food Systems & Health Analyst | December 20, 2017, 3:27 pm EDT
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This post is a part of a series on Farm Bill 2018

We’ve been talking a lot about the federal legislation known as the Farm Bill, a major law governing key US food and agriculture programs that’s up for re-authorization during 2018. And while most of the dozen sections or “titles” of the 2014 Farm Bill are deep in the weeds of agriculture—from commodity crop programs and crop insurance to agriculture research and on-farm conservation—the title governing nutrition programs is actually the largest, and by a long shot. It accounts for approximately 80 percent of the bill’s spending, and its programs are among the most important resources in the federal safety net.

They are also among the most at risk of cuts each time the Farm Bill is reauthorized. This reauthorization cycle is no exception, with President Trump’s proposed budget earlier this year and recent comments by his agriculture secretary serving as some of the first of many indications that nutrition assistance programs could face structural changes and drastic reductions in funding by the time this is all over.

Farm and food programs go hand-in-hand

Before we go down that road, it’s worth noting that the cornerstone food assistance programs of the nutrition title have roots that are intricately intertwined with those of early agricultural programs. In 1933, as farmers were faced with surpluses and historically low prices in the midst of the Great Depression, the federal government responded with the first Farm Bill: The Agriculture Adjustment Act of 1933. This legislation established, among other things, the Federal Surplus Relief Corporation, which allowed the government to purchase farm commodities at discounted prices and distribute them at hunger relief agencies. In leveraging federal resources to relieve the strain on both US farmers and families, the program offered a model for what would become the first food stamp program in 1939.

Eight decades and 16 Farm Bills later, the nutrition title continues to support households at risk of food insecurity—though the relationship between nutrition and farm programs is increasingly complicated by financial and political interests. This is evident in the dissonance between our farm policies, which tend to give preference to commodity crops like corn and soy, and our dietary guidelines, which encourage us to consume more foods like fruits and vegetables. And while the food stamp program—now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)—remains a foundational component of the nutrition title, other nutrition programs have emerged alongside it with renewed interest in a healthy food supply that benefits both consumers and regional food producers.

So what did the nutrition title look like in the last Farm Bill passed in 2014, and what’s on the horizon for its reauthorization in 2018?

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program: The fabric of the federal safety net

SNAP is one of the largest components of the federal safety net, providing critical financial support for more than 21 million American households. The program helps to prevent hunger and poverty among some of our most vulnerable populations, including children, who account for about 4 out of 10 SNAP participants, as well as seniors and people with disabilities. It also acts as a critical safeguard in circumstances causing temporary food insecurity or financial strain, such as natural disasters or unexpected gaps in employment. In 2014, the program lifted an estimated 4.7 million people out of poverty, including 2.1 million children, and reduced food insecurity rates by nearly a third.

There are currently few restrictions on the foods and beverages that can be purchased with SNAP benefits, though benefits can’t be used to buy alcohol, vitamins, medicine, and hot foods or foods consumed in-store. (An exception: states offering the Restaurant Meals Program may allow homeless, disabled, or elderly participants to redeem benefits in restaurants.)

Disaster SNAP was used to provide emergency food relief to those impacted by Hurricane Harvey in Houston, Texas. Photo: US Department of Agriculture/CC by public domain

SNAP eligibility is primarily determined by household gross income (set at 130 percent of the poverty line) and net income tests, with exceptions for seniors and those receiving disability payments. Applicants may also be eligible for SNAP benefits if they’re qualified for other assistance programs, such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), through a provision called broad-based categorical eligibility. Adults in households without children, seniors, or people with disabilities must meet work requirements or face benefit termination after a period of three months (renewed every three years). During periods of severe economic downturn, as in the years following the Great Recession, states may be given the option to grant waivers lifting the three-month time limit.

SNAP is uniquely equipped to respond to changing economic conditions due to its status as an entitlement program, which ensures that increases in eligibility or program participation are matched by increases in funding. The Great Recession highlighted the importance of this funding structure: when unemployment grew by 93 percent between 2007 and 2011, SNAP participation grew by 70 percent. Meanwhile, assistance programs funded through block grants, such as TANF, experienced only marginal increases in participation.

Increased SNAP spending not only improves food security among participating households, but also acts as an economic stimulus, with every five dollars in new SNAP benefits generating as much as nine dollars in economic activity. Following economic recovery, enrollment and spending tend to decline. Between 2013 and 2016, caseloads in a majority of states experienced steady declines, due to both economic recovery and the reinstatement of three-month time limits for adult participants without employment. The Congressional Budget Office predicts that program costs will continue to decline throughout the next decade.

The Nutrition Education and Obesity Prevention Grant Program, generally referred to as SNAP Education or SNAP-Ed, complements SNAP benefits by providing grant funding for nutrition education. SNAP-Ed prioritizes evidence-based programs and interventions that support healthy eating behaviors and physical activity among low-income populations. Evaluations of nutrition education programs have reported increases in fruit and vegetable intake, reductions in overweight youth, and increases in physical activity among adults, with some studies estimating a $10 savings in overall long-term health care costs for every dollar invested.

SNAP Education grants help kids and adults learn new skills and develop healthy eating behaviors. Photo: Coqui the Chef/CC by SA 2.0

Nutrition assistance for special populations

There are multiple programs contained in the nutrition title of the 2014 Farm Bill that provide nutrition assistance to special populations and supplement existing programs with increased access to fresh, healthy foods.

  • The Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR) works in lieu of SNAP, providing USDA foods to low-income households living on Indian reservations, as well as Native American families residing in designated areas.
  • The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) provides USDA commodity foods to public or private nonprofit organizations preparing or distributing meals to primarily low-income populations.
  • The Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP) provides nutritious USDA commodity foods to participating states and Indian Tribal Organizations to supplement the diets of low-income elderly persons 60 years of age and older.
  • The Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program provides grant funding for state agencies to offer low-income seniors coupons that can be redeemed for fruits, vegetables, honey, and herbs at farmers markets, roadside stands, and community-supported agriculture programs.
  • The Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program provides eligible elementary schools with free fresh fruits and vegetables during the day, with the goal of supporting nutrition education and introducing children to greater varieties of health-promoting foods.

Nutrition programs supporting healthy food access and stronger food systems

A number of innovative programs established in the 2008 and 2014 Farm Bills called attention to the importance of improving healthy food access and supporting local and regional farm economies through nutrition assistance programs. These programs play a crucial role in helping families secure access to healthy and affordable foods—especially as recent research has confirmed that, at current levels, SNAP benefits alone aren’t enough to help families achieve a healthy diet.

  • The Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive (FINI) program provides grant funding to help provide point-of-purchase incentives that encourage the purchase of fruits and vegetables by SNAP participants. Modeled after Wholesome Wave’s Double Value Coupon Program, which matches the value of SNAP benefits spent on fruits and vegetables at participating farmers markets and grocery stores, the FINI grant program helped thousands of low-income SNAP households spend over $5 million in SNAP benefits on fresh fruits and vegetables in 2015. More than three quarters of participating SNAP farmers market shoppers reported buying or consuming more fruits and vegetables as a result, and over half of all participating farmers reported making greater profits or increasing the scope of their operations.
  • The Healthy Food Financing Initiative (HFFI) provides grants, tax credits, low-cost loans, and technical assistance to help increase access to healthy, affordable foods in low-income and underserved communities. Applications of HFFI funding include investments in new grocery stores, corner stores, farmers markets, and other retail outlets offering nutritious foods. Modeled after the Pennsylvania Fresh Food Financing Initiative, HFFI helped communities invest more than $69 million in 119 retail projects for a total of more than 1.5 million square feet of new retail space as of 2015.
  • The Food and Agricultural Service Learning Program is administered by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, and complements federal farm-to-school grants to increase the capacity for food, garden, and nutrition education programs.

Looking ahead: Nutrition in the 2018 Farm Bill

The upcoming Farm Bill reauthorization introduces both opportunities and threats to key components of the nutrition title, with the latter most likely to impact SNAP.

The House Agriculture Committee conducted a comprehensive review of SNAP between 2015 and 2016, gathering testimony from 60 witnesses across a total of 16 hearings, and published a report highlighting its findings. This report, paired with recent statements from the administration regarding SNAP and welfare reform, indicate that a number of changes that may befall the program in the coming Farm Bill, including stricter work requirements, mandatory drug testing, and other mechanisms to reduce eligibility. There is little evidence supporting the need for and utility of such reforms: USDA data demonstrates that most participants who can work, do work, while past attempts to implement drug testing in TANF have proved costly and yielded low rates of drug abuse.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue attends a Farmer’s Roundtable where President Donald Trump signed the Executive Order Promoting Agriculture and Rural Prosperity in America in April 2017. Photo: USDA/CC by public domain

However, the re-authorization of the Farm Bill also provides important opportunities to lift up the voices of those who have relied on SNAP benefits during disasters and economic downturn, highlighting the ways in which the program helps all Americans; to make positive changes that can increase the reach of existing programs, such as the inclusion of veterans in the Senior Farmers Market Promotion Program; and to provide continued funding and support for programs like FINI and HFFI that are making substantial progress in bridging the gap between low-income consumers and local food producers.

Though the nutrition title may appear to be an outlier by name, the benefits it provides to our households and communities are also in large part sustaining our food and farming systems—and have great potential to also help them thrive. To receive updates on the ways in which we’re working to build stronger food systems and healthier populations in the next Farm Bill, or to learn how you can get involved and support the programs that are important to you, text “food justice” to 662266.

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