CHN: Senate Agriculture Committee Marks Up Farm Bill

Senate Agriculture Chairman Harkin Releases His Plan
On November 1, Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-IA) introduced a comprehensive Farm Bill, the Agriculture, Conservation, and Rural Enhancement Act (S 1628). This package encompasses agricultural and commodity programs in addition to food stamp provisions.

The nutrition title in Senator Harkin’s Farm Bill reauthorizes the Food Stamp Program and provides $6.2 billion in new funding over a ten-year period. In addition, the proposed legislation takes important steps toward restoring nutrition benefits for legal immigrants and adds new provisions to better serve working families seeking food assistance. Senator Harkin introduced his proposal three weeks after Senate Agriculture Committee Ranking Member Richard Lugar (R-IN) announced his own Farm Bill, which also includes an extensive nutrition title.

Like the nutrition title of Senator Lugar’s Farm and Ranch Equity Act (S 1571), Senator Harkin’s measure includes much needed Food Stamp Program improvements. Both measures include important options for states, including: six-month transitional benefits for those moving from welfare to work; simplifications in the application of the Standard Utility Allowance (SUA); and the option to switch to a semi-annual reporting system, which will allow food stamp recipients to be recertified every 6 months rather than every 2-3 months as is required by current law.

While both measures include significant benefit restorations for legal immigrants and able-bodied adults without dependants, Senator Lugar’s proposal is considered more generous in this area. Under both bills, benefits would be restored to legal immigrants who have shown 16 or more quarters of work history in the United States, a significant improvement from the 1996 welfare reform legislation. Also included in both measures is a provision that would extend the time limit for program participation by unemployed childless adults, allowing more people to have access to needed food stamp benefits.

The Lugar proposal also includes several Food Stamp Program improvements not contained in the Harkin bill. These improvements would exclude the value of household vehicles while determining eligibility; allow states to offer joint processing procedures for persons applying for SSI benefits; replace the certification period with an eligibility review period; and make several changes to further simplify program rules not included in the Harkin proposal.

For his part, Senator Harkin has included some provisions not contained in the Lugar nutrition title. For example, the proposal provides for $2.5 million in annual funding for Community Food Projects. In addition, the bill provides funds to states to contract with nongovernmental organizations to develop innovative programs for addressing community food security problems. Harkin’s bill also includes a measure to allow food stamp benefits to be used to purchase nutritional supplements that contain essential vitamins or minerals. Currently, food stamp benefits can only be used for purchasing non-prepared food and groceries. Some advocates warn that this provision could lead families to substitute vitamins for balanced meals.

Although the Harkin proposal provides less funding and has a less expansive nutrition title than the Lugar Bill, both measures include a much stronger nutrition title than the House-passed bill (HR 2646). That measure includes only $3.6 billion in increased food stamp funding and does not address restoration for legal immigrants or many of the other program improvements included in the two Senate bills. The Senate Agriculture Committee began to mark up the rural development and research titles of the Farm Bill on October 31. Mark up of the nutrition title is scheduled for early next week.

Food and Nutrition