Friday, June 01, 2018

Guest Essay: The Farm Bill and Hungry Oregonians: Why Care?

When I was in college I needed food stamps—now called SNAP—for a few months to fill a gap in my budget, a situation familiar to many of us who, in a rough patch in our lives, have needed some sort of assistance. The following essay by Jacqui Stork, assistant manager of the Hillsdale Farmers' Market, explains the program, its importance in the lives of our fellow Oregonians, and the part it has in the larger national debate over the Farm Bill. You'll find links for more information at the end.

Administered by the USDA, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is the largest federal food assistance program, distributing roughly $637 million in benefits to its 42 million recipients in 2017. Using SNAP benefits is not uncommon: the federal government estimates that approximately 51% of Americans will participate in the program at some point during their lifetime.

Oregon has had higher proportion of individuals on SNAP than the U.S. average since 2000, and participation remains over 1.5 times higher than it was in 2006. This is partly explained by a still-lagging economy, but since the recession underemployment remains high and housing costs have skyrocketed. The high proportion also reflects a more positive trend: increased participation among eligible people. Historically, it has been difficult to apply for and receive SNAP benefits in Oregon, but that began to change in the late 1990s when lawmakers simplified the process and engaged in strategic outreach to increase participation and access. Now, nearly 100% of eligible Oregonians participate in the program. Last year nearly 15% of Oregon households received benefits.

Eligibility is based on monthly income, not long-term financial outlook or assets, which is important because many people cycle in and out of poverty or food-insecure status. A person's SNAP eligibility status and participation can therefore fluctuate over time. In fact, although millions of Americans rely on SNAP long-term for assistance and security, many utilize the program short-term to alleviate the effects of a financial crisis. Even a small monthly benefit can help provide financial freedom—food insecurity rates are nearly 30% lower among SNAP-participating households than they otherwise would be.

That being said, new research has indicated that, nationwide, the allowable benefit is inadequate for many families to sustain a healthful diet, and that increasing benefits could lead to improvements in health and economic vitality in the long term. Although the program is intended to be supplemental, SNAP benefits make up the bulk of many families' food budgets. The maximum allowable benefit falls well below the average cost of food (in Multnomah County it is $1.86 max benefit per meal versus $2.54 actual cost per meal), so people must still find ways to bridge that gap. Many depend on food pantries, like the one administered by Neighborhood House, or other food assistance programs to meet this need.

Benefits have been distributed using the Electronic Benefit Transfer, or EBT, card starting in the late 1990s, but SNAP and its benefits are still commonly referred to as "Food Stamps" thanks to a long history of paper vouchers redeemed for eligible food items. In Oregon, the EBT card is known as the "Oregon Trail" card. Many believe that this change has reduced stigma for participants because it allows retailers to use the same Point of Sale (POS) system as with debit or credit cards. In order for retailers to accept benefits, they must apply and become an approved site through the federal government. Additionally, retailers must use an approved POS device to run transactions. Over the past decade, there has been a push by the USDA to help farmers' markets become approved retailers by providing training resources and subsidization of these POS terminals. Today, the National Farmers' Market directory lists over 2,800 markets nationwide that accept SNAP benefits—up from 750 in 2008. This means more people are able to access the abundance of fresh, local products and that more money goes directly into the pockets of farmers and our local economies.

Funding for SNAP is allocated and approved through the omnibus Farm Bill, thus named because it consolidates the appropriation of funding for several programs and projects into a single package—a vote for one is a vote for all. Along with SNAP, the Farm Bill includes farm support policies (like subsidies, crop insurance, etc), international food aid, land use and many, many other things. In essence, this bill touches every part of our national food system and pairs the oft-conflicting missions of large federal agencies. After teaching a graduate-level course dedicated to the Farm Bill, Marion Nestle, a pioneer in food policy research, stated that "the bill not only lacked an overarching vision, but seemed designed to obfuscate how the programs actually worked."

Every five years Congress must re-authorize the Farm Bill, and our current bill is set to expire in September 2018. Each of the two previous bills faced many challenges on their way to passage: the 2008 bill was vetoed by President Bush and then expired nearly two years before another bill was passed in 2014, and we seem to be in the same boat in 2018.

So far, proposals for this year's bill seek to reshape SNAP, mostly by reducing its budget and reach. Earlier this year, the White House proposed a $26.9 million budget cut in addition to imposing new work requirements for eligibility. Perhaps the most shocking part of this White House plan was the suggestion that rather than providing financial benefits which allow people to shop for and choose their own food, the SNAP program should be based on food boxes doled out monthly. Unsurprisingly, the description of these proposed boxes did not include fresh produce—let alone local or organic options.

Last week the House voted on a bill that would impose strict work requirements while rolling back policies that allowed states some flexibility in providing waivers for these requirements. Additionally, while the bill doesn't reduce spending on SNAP, it does cut funding for benefits and nutrition education programs. An estimated 1.2 million people could lose their benefits under this proposal, and luckily it did not pass. Yet. A new vote has already been scheduled for next month (June). After that, the Senate will vote on a bill and the different versions must be reconciled before being sent to a White House that has shown little to no interest in providing support for the less fortunate.

All told, this process could extend well into 2019 and, given the hyper-partisan nature of our current democracy, this seems likely. Because the current bill expires in September, this means that programs could go without funding for a period of months (this happened during the delay of the 2014 Farm Bill).

To be sure, passage of a clean Farm Bill is imperative for issues far beyond SNAP. But, making it more difficult for millions of Americans to receive food assistance hurts families and communities by reducing access to nutritious and appropriate foods. There is still time to make sure that the final bill is one that supports our most vulnerable, rather than punishing them. Call your representatives in Congress to let them know where you stand before it is too late.

And, if you're interested, here is some additional reading on SNAP, the Farm Bill, and food assistance:

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