Election year complicates Farm Bill's fate

John Weidman of the local nonprofit Food Trust is to testify Wed. before the Senate to try to prevent SNAP cuts.
John Weidman of the local nonprofit Food Trust is to testify Wed. before the Senate to try to prevent SNAP cuts.
Posted: March 07, 2012

On Wednesday, the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry will convene its third hearing in the nation's capital on the federal 2012 Farm Bill.

Should you care?

Born in 1916, the Farm Bill comes up for reauthorization about every five years. The current version expires in September.

It's a real behemoth, with tentacles that affect industrial and small-scale farming, land and energy use, agricultural research, and food safety.

But overall, the Farm Bill has more to do with food than with farming. And most of the nearly $300 billion in the bill - an estimated 70 cents of every Farm Bill dollar - pays for SNAP, otherwise known as food stamps.

And in an election year, when nearly every dollar spent on government programs is subject to criticism from Republican quarters, the 2012 Farm Bill could be reduced to a political tool.

It is a national bill with local implications, so Gabriella Mora, a project manager at the nonprofit Food Trust, has been coordinating meetings of this area's food access and policy advocates regarding the bill.

Mora plans to accompany Food Trust deputy executive director John Weidman when he testifies Wednesday in Washington.

As much as she'd like to see the bill expanded, "we've been told that expansion is unrealistic," Mora said recently.

As it is, in 2011, the Corbett administration cut $14 million from food stamps, rerouting the money elsewhere. And more recently, Gov. Corbett announced that an asset test for food-stamp recipients would go into effect in May.

So older people and the disabled with more than $9,000 in assets won't qualify for food stamps. For people under age 60, the threshold is $5,000. That's an estimated 4,000 hungrier Pennsylvanians.

"We want no further cuts in SNAP," Mora says. "We want to see government emergency-food donations extended to the unemployed for the first time. We want to protect the existing funding that supports farmers' markets and allows people to spend their SNAP dollars there.

"And we want to eliminate the asset test as a 'state option' in the Farm Bill."

On average, individuals on food stamps receive $32.50 a week, or $4.65 a day. In 2011, Philadelphia and its four surrounding counties all reported sharp increases in SNAP participants.

Another debate, not touched on by Mora's group, is about putting additional controls on what people can buy with their food stamps.

Citing concerns about chronic health problems such as obesity, heart disease, and diabetes, many legislators and people who see themselves as food activists favor cutting sugary drinks from the list of allowable food-stamp purchases.

(That idea differs sharply from taxing all sales of sugary drinks, which Mayor Nutter tried and failed to get through City Council, twice.)

To LaDonna Redmond, who runs the Food and Justice Program at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy in Minneapolis, disallowing sugary drinks may sound like a healthy idea, but it is wrong.

It betrays a level of prejudice, Redmond says, based on a misunderstanding about who receives food-stamp benefits. Nationally, the majority of recipients are white, not black. Many are children.

Redmond is against singling out poor people for their sugar consumption.

"This is about controlling the lives of poor people just because we can," says Redmond, who was in Philadelphia late last year for a Farm Bill 101 session.

"I don't know that we want to get into a police state around what poor people do," Redmond reiterated in a recent telephone interview. "The discussion should be around the system, not the people in it."

Redmond said she would prefer to see Congress and the president throw out the existing Farm Bill and start over. "What we need instead is a national food policy."

"We don't have a cohesive food policy that covers genetically modified foods, proper labeling, or opportunities for the growing number of immigrant farmers," she said.

She has her own wish list for the new bill:

"I think it should have policies that result in no one being hungry; it should create an optimal nutritional environment in our schools; retain current SNAP benefits; reallocate subsidies that now go to big agribusiness; and create a more vibrant food system."

This being an election year, says Mora, of the Food Trust, a vote on the bill could be postponed until 2013.

"Strange things happen," she said, "in election years."

Contact Dianna Marder at 215-854-4211 or dmarder@phillynews.com.

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