CHN: Vote on Passage of the Farm Bill Expected This Week
After contentious negotiations and multiple temporary extensions of current law, Congress is finally poised to vote on the Farm bill reauthorization, (the Farm, Nutrition, and Bioenergy Act of 2007, H.R. 2419). Anti-hunger advocates were successful in making important improvements that will raise food stamp benefits, increase funding for emergency food, and fund fruit and vegetable snacks in low-income schools.
The House and Senate have grappled with issues that included how to pay for the increased costs in the $286 billion 5-year bill, whether to include a disaster fund for farmers in a few states supported by the Senate but not the House, if and by how much to cut direct crop subsidy payments to farmers, and how to allocate new resources in the nutrition title of the bill. With all of these issues now resolved by the House and Senate conference committee, a vote is scheduled for the week of May 12.
Advocates are pleased that $10.4 billion over 10 years has been added to the nutrition title of the bill, including $7.8 billion for the Food Stamp Program, $1.26 billion for The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP), which purchases food for emergency feeding organizations, and $1 billion for the free fresh fruits and vegetable snack programs targeted to schools with large shares of low-income families.
The Food Stamp Program, desperately in need of updating after years of erosion, would experience important program improvements. The bill would raise the standard deduction for food stamps, frozen since 1995, from $134 to $144 and index it for inflation. The minimum food stamp benefit received mostly by single individuals who are elderly or disabled would be increased from $10 to $14 and would be indexed for inflation. These changes would allow the program to stop losing food purchasing power. Retirement accounts and education accounts would no longer be counted when determining eligibility for food stamps, and the cap on the dependent care deduction would be eliminated, allowing families to deduct the full amount of dependent care costs they incur in order to work or participate in education and training programs. The bill also renames the Food Stamp Program, calling it the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
Advocates are disappointed that the provision from the Senate-passed bill raising the food stamp asset limit by $1,500 – to $3,500 for most households and to $4,500 for households with elderly and disabled members – was dropped. The current $2,000 and $3,000 limits would begin to be indexed for inflation.
The annual funding level for TEFAP would increase from the current $140 million to $250 million in 2009 and be increased based on changes in the cost of the Thrifty Food Plan in subsequent years. The Senior Farmers’ Market program would receive a slight increase. A new 6-state (125 school) whole grain breakfast and lunch pilot program whose goal is to promote nutrition is included in the bill. The fresh fruits and vegetables program is expanded to include all elementary schools in the country where more than half of the children are eligible for free or reduced price school meals.
The McGovern-Dole Program, named after former Senators Bob Dole (R-KS) and George McGovern (D-SD), which provides meals to children who attend school in the poorest countries, receives a significant cut in the bill. Funding would go from $840 million over five years to $60 million in 2009 with no guarantee of funding after that. According to most recent figures, in 2005 the food-for-education program spent $91 million to provide 118,000 tons of food to 3.4 million children in 15 developing countries resulting in more children enrolled in school and improved student nutrition and performance.
Bill supporters in the House and Senate are working to secure veto-proof majorities when H.R. 2419 comes to the floor. The bill will almost certainly be vetoed by the President, who continues to express his disapproval that the bill has not done enough to reform the system of crop subsidy payments – money farmers receive regardless of the price they are receiving for their crops. Current law prohibits people making more than $2.5 million a year in adjusted gross income from receiving subsidy payments. The new bill would lower those caps so that people making more that $750,000 a year in farm-related income or anyone making more than $500,000 a year in non-farm-related income would not be eligible to collect subsidies. However, some farmers may fall within both categories, meaning they could make up to $1.25 million a year and still collect government payments. Those limits are doubled for married couples.
For a more detailed analysis of the nutrition title of the H.R. 2419 and for a look at the benefits in dollars to states of selected nutrition provisions, see the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities paper, “Farm Bill Conference Agreement Contains Significant Domestic Nutrition Improvements” at: http://www.cbpp.org/5-8-08fa.pdf.