by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Farm-policy

May 16 2013

The farm bill’s nutrition efforts: practically irrelevant to SNAP

SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, is funded by Title IV in the farm bill, currently under consideration in Congress.   It accounts for about 80% of the total farm bill funding, and costs taxpayers about $80 billion a year.

SNAP is an entitlement, which means that everyone who qualifies gets benefits—unless Congress changes that.  So far, all it is doing is trying to cut budget.

Although SNAP is under the Nutrition title, little about the program is designed to improve the nutrition and health of participants.  But the farm bill has plenty to say about nutrition—just not for SNAP participants.

Much of the Senate version of the Nutrition Title is about continued funding for food assistance programs other than SNAP:

  • The Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP)
  • The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) which mainly works through food banks
  • The Department of Defense Fresh Program (fresh foods to schools and service institutions)
  • Agriculture Marketing Service pilot programs in states for to source local foods
  • The Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program (coupon exchange at farmers’ markets, roadside stands, and community supported agriculture programs).
  • A new Pulse Products Program that encourages sampling of a variety of beans and peas for use in school meal programs (I suspect some lobbying here).
  • A Healthy Food Financing Initiative to administer loans and grants to improve access to healthy foods in “food deserts.”
  • The Fresh Fruit and Vegetables Program to provide free fresh fruits and vegetables to low-income elementary school children
  • Grants to eligible nonprofit organizations to improve community access to food through school gardens programs and urban greenhouse initiatives
  • A new Service and Learning program funded at $25 million in which members work in K-12 schools to engage children in experiential learning about agriculture, gardening, nutrition, cooking and where food comes from. [Wow!  This one reads as if written to support FoodCorps—wouldn’t that be terrific!]
  • Interagency taskforce to coordinate and direct programs that supply food to key nutrition programs like the Emergency Food Assistance Program and National School Lunch Program.

And here’s another one about the Dietary Guidelines for Americans of all things [whose bright idea was this?]:

  • Not later than the 2020 report [the Dietary Guidelines for Americans] and in each report thereafter, the Secretaries [of USDA and HHS] shall include national nutritional and dietary information and guidelines for pregnant women and children from birth.

The Senate bill does have one useful, if poorly funded, piece directed at the health of SNAP participants, and another aimed at retailers:

  • Grants to expand the purchase of fruits and vegetables by SNAP participants through programs like “Double Up Food Bucks.”
  • Requires retailers who accept SNAP benefit payments to stock a wider range of healthful foods.

The House bill does more or less the same with the addition of:

  • Grants for eligible nonprofit organizations seeking and developing innovative ways to improve community access to healthy foods.
The costs of these changes are not specified except in just a few cases.
Budget cuts are the big issue.

Small-farm activist Ferd Hoefner, policy director at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, said the quarrel over SNAP could rupture a long-standing partnership of rural and urban lawmakers who supported farm programs on the one hand, and public nutrition programs on the other.

“Is this the end of the farm bill coalition?” Hoefner said.

Is it?  I wonder if we will ever have a Congress that puts a little vision into this bill and writes legislation to solve some of our country’s agriculture, poverty, and health problems, interconnected as they are.

May 15 2013

The Ag Committees’ Farm Bill Title IV (food stamps): Mean-Spirited

SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program-–Title IV in the Senate and the House farm bills—is the elephant in the room because it takes up roughly 80% of the bill’s total cost to taxpayers.   SNAP benefits cost roughly $80 billion per year for 47.5 million participants.

Yesterday, the Senate Agriculture Committee passed its version of the farm bill with no amendments to its draft of  the Title IV Nutrition section.  The committee proposes more than $4 billion in cuts to SNAP over the next 10 years.

Joel Berg, Executive Director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger said of the vote:

Unfortunately…[the Senate Ag Committee] passed a bill that values foreign corporate welfare over feeding our children, seniors, and low-income working people. If this version of the Farm Bill becomes law, $4.1 billion in SNAP funding would be cut, and that would mean $90 less a month for 500,000 families already struggling to make ends meet.

For out-of-work American adults and their out-of-luck children, SNAP is a lifeline, the remaining survivor of the once effective safety net.

SNAP is an entitlement, which means that anyone who qualifies is eligible to receive benefits.  That’s how Congress set it up but with budget cuts the only issue of concern, the $80 billion annual cost of SNAP is a sitting duck.

That’s why these bills look so mean-spirited.

Apparently, Congress could not care less about making sure that the down-and-out have access to better and healthier food.

Instead, the emphasis is on reducing enrollments and preventing fraud.  Yes, fraud is a problem in SNAP, but a relatively small one.  And whether fraud is worth the time, energy, and hundreds of millions of dollars a year spent on its prevention is arguable.

But this is about politics, and it’s possible that the new anti-fraud measures may be a small price to pay for hanging onto the bulk of the benefits.

As the Senate summary puts it:

The Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act of 2013 strengthens the integrity and accountability of federal nutrition programs. The legislation ensures that every dollar be spent responsibly so that those who need help can get it. The bill cracks down on fraud and abuse, while strengthening efforts to get food assistance to those most in need.

The proposed bill:

  • Cracks down on trafficking (and allocates $12 million per year for that purpose)
  • Prevents lottery winners from receiving benefits
  • Prevents college students from misusing benefits
  • Limits SNAP eligibility for college students
  • Prevents utility allowances from influencing size of benefits

The House summary says: “FARRM makes common-sense reforms, closes program loopholes, and cracks down on waste,fraud, and abuse saving the American taxpayer over $20 billion.”

  • Ensures all households meet the asset and income tests stated in SNAP law before they can receive benefits.
  • Updates financial resource limits to more accurately reflect low-income households.
  • Restricts categorical eligibility to only those households receiving cash assistance from Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), or other state general assistance programs.
  • Stops states from giving recipients utility benefit payments that increase SNAP benefits.
  • Ends SNAP benefits for lottery or gambling winners.
  • Prevents traditional college students from receiving SNAP.
  • Requires states to verify SNAP benefits are not paid to deceased individuals.
  • Requires states to verify that beneficiaries are not receiving payments in more than one state.
  • Prevents SNAP benefits from being used to pay for substantial bottle deposits when contents are dumped and bottles returned for refunds..
  • Prohibits counting medical marijuana as an income deduction for SNAP benefits.
  • Ensures illegal Immigrants do not receive SNAP benefits.
  • Prevents USDA from promoting the SNAP program through outreach via television, radio and billboard advertisements.
  • Prohibits USDA from entering into agreements with foreign governments designed to promote SNAP benefits.
  • Requires states to report outcomes on education and training programs for SNAP recipients.

Yes, most of these sound reasonable, although eliminating outreach seems like a really bad idea.  But do they represent the most serious problems with SNAP?

Where is congressional will to meet the needs of the poorest members of our society?  This is about cost-cutting and power politics.  It is not about taking care of the most vulnerable members of society, among them 23 million children.

Tomorrow, I’ll talk about the useful parts of this legislation—those focused on improving the health of SNAP participants—and why SNAP benefits are so contentious in this Congress.

In the meantime, the House Ag Committee does its version of the farm bill starting at 10:00 this morning.

May 14 2013

Attention policy wonks! It’s farm bill time again.

The Senate and House released their versions of the farm bill last week.  By size (1102 v. 576 pages) and extent of budget cuts ($23 billion v. $40 billion), these are  incompatible. I’m guessing that getting them passed and reconciled will require major compromises—hard to imagine for this dysfunctional Congress.

The Congressional Budget Office, according to the Hagstrom Report, estimates that the Senate bill will cost $955 billion from 2014 to 2023, and the House bill will cost $940 billion—but roughly $100 billion a year for the next 10 years.   Much is at stake.

The Senate Ag Committee is discussing its bill today (click here for details).  The House Ag Committee does this on Wednesday (click here).

To get up to speed, here are the relevant documents on the Senate side:

And here are the parallel documents on the House side:

As a reminder of what the farm bill is all about, see my previous posts on the subject from November 14 and November 26 2012.

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), ever optimistic, has produced a report, The Healthy Farm: A Vision for U.S. Agriculture, identifying ways that the farm bill could—if there were any political will—support an agricultural system focused on producing abundant, affordable, and healthy food and on protecting the environment (also see its interactive healthy farm and take action sites).

During the coming days, I’ll take a stab at interpreting key pieces of the proposed bills.  Stay tuned.

2:00 p.m. addition: Jerry Hagstrom says the Senate Agriculture Committee has approved the farm bill by a vote of 15 to 5. Senators Roberts, McConnell, Johanns, Thune and Gillibrand voted no.  OK.  Now let’s see what the House does tomorrow.

Addition #2: Follow the amendments on FarmBillPrimer.org: Senate and House.

 

Apr 29 2013

Happy 5th Birthday: Pew Commission

Five years ago today, The Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production released its report: Putting Meat on the Table: Industrial Farm Animal Production in America.

I was a member of the commission, put together by Pew  Charitable Trusts in partnership with the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, and chaired by John Carlin, a former governor of Kansas.

The commission met for two years to investigate the effects of the current system of intensive animal production on public health, the environment, the communities housing confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs), and on the welfare of farm animals.

As a member, I had the opportunity to visit huge dairy farms, feedlots, pig farms, and facilities housing 1.2 million chickens.  This was, to say the least, quite an education.

The big issues? Overuse of antibiotics and the shocking environmental impact of vast amounts of animal waste.

The big surprise? Plenty of adequate laws exist to protect the environment and communities; they just aren’t being enforced.

A New York Times editorial noted that farm policies have turned “animal husbandry…into animal abuse,” and need rethinking and revision.

Indeed they did and do. 

As with all such reports, this one made too many recommendations but the most important ones had to do with the inappropriate use of antibiotics in farm animal production:

Restrict the use of antimicrobials in food animal production to reduce the risk of antimicrobial resistance to medically important antibiotics.

Another key recommendation:

Fully enforce current federal and state environmental exposure regulations and legislation, and increase monitoring  of the possible public health effects of IFAP [industrial farm animal production] on people who live and work in or near these operations.

And my sentimental favorite:

Create a Food Safety Administration that combines the food inspection and safety responsibilities of the federal government, USDA, FDA, EPA, and other federal agencies into one agency to improve the safety of the US food supply.

What good do reports like this do?

The report established a strong research basis for the need for policies to clean up industrial farm animal production and better protect the health and welfare of everyone and everything involved: workers, communities, the environment, and the animals themselves.

This is a good time to take another look at the report and consider how its basic—and absolutely necessary—recommendations can be put in place, and the sooner the better.

Nov 26 2012

The farm bill is still in limbo. Now what?

My NYU Food Policy class meets tonight and we’ll be talking about the farm bill and Dan Imhoff’s most helpful book Food Fight: The Citizens’ Guide to the Next Food and Farm Bill.

To review what’s up with the 2012 farm bill:

Congress updates farm bills every five years or so.  It passed the last one in 2008, with an expiration date at midnight on September 30, 2012.  This was the first time Congress ever set an expiration date to land in the midst of a presidential election.  This was asking for trouble.  Congress is paralyzed in election years.

That date has now come and gone.

But in June 2011, the Senate passed its version of the bill: The Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act of 2012.

The House, however, was unable to come to agreement on its version: The Federal Agriculture Reform and Risk Management Act of 2012.

Why?  Election-year politics and disagreements about whether and by how much the SNAP (food stamps) budget should be cut.  More than 80% of farm bill spending goes to SNAP benefits—a whopping $72 billion last year–making it a prime target for budget cutting.

This situation puts us in farm bill limbo.

The significance of limbo is best explained by the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC).

  • Without a new farm bill, commodity (corn, soybean, etc) support programs revert to permanent law contained in the farm bills passed in 1938 and 1949.  Why?  Because unlike subsequent bills, these did not have expiration dates.
  • The old laws reintroduce much higher support prices (through certain loans instead of payments), require much smaller crop production, and lead to much higher consumer prices.  They do not include  support for soybeans, other oilseeds, peanuts, or sugar, making them woefully out of date.
  • Limbo has no effect on SNAP or crop insurance.  Congress covered SNAP with a resolution for continued funding through March 2013.  The Federal Crop Insurance Act effectively authorizes crop insurance permanently.
  • Dairy programs are in turmoil.  Milk payments to farmers ended in September.  The dairy price support program ends on January 1.   Under the 1949 law, government-supported prices would be about four times higher than current law and about twice as high as current market prices.
  • The Agricultural Appropriations Act extended some—but not all—conservation programs through 2014.
  • The permanent law does not support the hard-won programs that encourage fruit and vegetable production: organic, farmers’ market, beginning farmer, socially disadvantaged farmer, or specialty crop programs.  These now have no funding.

This leaves Congress with three options between now and January:

  • Finish the current process and pass a bill (unlikely since it only has a few weeks to do this)
  • Vote to extend provisions through the 2013 crop year, or
  • Start from scratch all over again in a much tighter budget environment—the infamous “fiscal cliff.”

As NSAC explains:

The farm bill is the nation’s major food and agricultural policy vehicle and is about much more than the big ticket items: food stamps, crop insurance, and commodity support.  The farm bill is also about conservation and environmental protection, rural economic and community development, food system reform and agricultural research.

With no new farm bill or extension, the programs that address rural and urban job creation, natural resource conservation, renewable energy, and improved production and access to healthy food are in big trouble.

This is a big mess, and a serious result of dysfunctional government.  It will be interesting spectator sport to see how Congress handles it.

Will Congress find a way to bring agricultural policy in line with health policy?

Or will Congress simply do whatever is most expedient, given the budgetary mess it has also created.

It’s too bad so much is at stake.

Nov 14 2012

Where are we on the farm bill and where should we be?

The best explanation of what’s happening with the long-delayed 2012 farm bill comes from the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.  In September, it produced a still very much relevant Q and Aon the topic. The 2008 farm bill expired without being renewed.  If Congress does not act soon, farm policy will be in big trouble. Here are some brief excerpts:

What is the relationship between the farm bill and the automatic budget cuts scheduled for January 1? The new farm bill, when and if it becomes law, will cut more spending from farm bill programs overall, on a net basis, than the automatic budget cuts scheduled to begin on January 1 under the requirements of the Budget Control Act of 2011…Whether Congress postpones the start date for automatic cuts or in other ways amends the Budget Control Act when it returns to DC after the elections is one of the biggest issues hanging over the lame duck session.

What are the farm bill choices that Congress has during the lame duck session? There are two theories about what happens next.  In one, the House returns after the elections and finally brings its bill to the floor, passes the bill with amendments, the House and Senate versions then get reconciled in a farm bill “conference” committee, and a melded final bill is…sent to the President for his signature — all within the three to five weeks of the short “lame duck” session. In the other theory, Congress returns after the election and works out the details of a bill to extend, with some modifications, the 2008 Farm Bill until a date in the spring, summer, or fall of 2013.  Under this scenario, the new session of Congress that begins in January (and lasts for the next two years) will start the five-year farm bill process all over again, with both House and Senate Agriculture Committees formulating a new bill that will then go through the entire legislative process all over again….

Could a new Congress next year simply revert to the farm bills passed this year? No, not exactly.  Legislation does not carry forward from one Congress to the next.  The process must start all over again, with bills introduced, markups in Committee, and votes on the floor of both bodies… That said, if the leaders and members of the Agriculture Committees (some of whom will be new next year) decide to bring forth and approve essentially the same bill they produced in 2012, that is an option open to them.  But it still must go through the normal process and be subject to amendments and voting all over again.

What is the best path forward? There can be little doubt that the best path forward is for Congress to finish its work on the 2012 Farm Bill in 2012.  That will mean getting the House bill to the House floor very quickly when the lame duck session begins, but leaving plenty of time for debate and amendments.

Sigh.  The Q and A explains the consequences of congressional inaction.  The elephant in the farm bill, of course, is SNAP (formerly food stamps), which accounts for roughly 80% of farm bill spending at a time when budget cuts head the congressional agenda.  The most recent data show SNAP participation—and, therefore, costs—to be at a record high: more than 47 million.

As to what to do about the farm bill: The Atlantic has just posted a speech by Wendell Berry on “the 50-year farm bill.”

I have described the need for a farm bill that makes sense of and for agriculture — not the fiscal and political sense of agriculture, as in the customary five-year farm bills, but the ecological sense without which agricultural sense cannot be made, and without which agriculture cannot be made sustainable. “A 50-Year Farm Bill,” which has been in circulation now for more than three years, is a proposal by The Land Institute in Salinas, Kansas, with the concurrence of numerous allied groups and individuals. This bill addresses the most urgent problems of our dominant way of agriculture: soil erosion, toxic pollution of soil and water, loss of biodiversity, the destruction of farming communities and cultures. It addresses these problems by invoking nature’s primary law, in default of which her other laws are of no avail: Keep the ground covered, and keep it covered whenever possible with perennial plants.

We need a farm bill that promotes health–of people and the planet.  Buried in the messy politics of the farm bill is an opportunity to do much good.

Will Congress take it?  Only if we insist.

Sep 22 2012

The Farm Bill: R.I.P.

USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack has this to say about our dysfunctional Congress’s leaving town without passing the 2012 Farm Bill:

In a year that has brought its share of challenges to America’s farmers and ranchers, the House Republicans have added new uncertainty for rural America.

Unfortunately, House Republicans left Washington without passing comprehensive, multi-year food, farm and jobs legislation, leaving thousands of farming families exposed.

U.S. agriculture is fighting to maintain the tremendous momentum it has built over the past three years, but with natural disasters and other external forces threatening livelihoods of our farmers and ranchers, certainty is more important than ever.

Americans deserve a food, farm and jobs bill that reforms the safety net for producers in times of need, promotes the bio-based economy, conserves our natural resources, strengthens rural communities, promotes job growth in rural America, and supports food assistance to low-income families. Without the certainty of a multi-year bill, rural communities are being asked to shoulder undue burdens.

Aug 17 2012

To ponder over the weekend: What to do about corn and biofuels

Think about this over the weekend.

Among the other consequences of the current drought—along with the ruin of this year’s corn crop—is a complicated political battle over who gets the corn.

The players:

  • Corn producers: Want high prices.  Don’t care whether meat or ethanol producers get the corn.  Note: Many own their own ethanol refineries.
  • Meat producers: Want the corn at low prices.  Do not want corn grown for ethanol.  Want the ethanol quota waived.
  • Ethanol producers: Want the corn at low prices.  Want to keep the quota.
  • International aid agencies: Want corn to be grown for food and feed, not fuel.  Want the ethanol quota waived.

The ethanol quota:

Three big industries—corn agribusiness, industrial meat, ethanol—plus international agencies have a stake in the U.S. corn crop.

How should the Obama administration handle this?

  • Waive the ethanol quota?
  • Keep the ethanol quota?
  • Do nothing?
  • Do something else?  If so, what?
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