Food stamps and the farm bill: What happens next?

 
 
Health advocate Lisa Carrero assists with healthy food choices at a nutrition class at Tony's Finer Foods in Chicago, Illinois
Health advocate Lisa Carrero assists with healthy food choices at a nutrition class at Tony's Finer Foods in Chicago, Illinois
Phil Velasquez / Chicago Tribune/MCT

McClatchy Washington Bureau

House of Representatives Republicans passed a version of the long-delayed farm bill last week that upset the apple cart because it was missing a key political ingredient – the food stamp program.

A part of the bill since the 1970s and which helped smooth its passage, the removal of food stamps raised concerns among low-income families, farmers and lawmakers in both parties.

Q: What is the food stamp program?

A: Known officially as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, it is designed to alleviate hunger and improve nutrition among low-income families. It also aims to encourage them to spend food dollars more economically.

Q: How does it work?

A: Users buy food and related items with special debit cards. Alcohol and tobacco purchases are prohibited. As of April, the program had nearly 48 million participants, a nearly 3 percent increase from a year ago.

Q: Who qualifies?

A: Households must earn less than 130 percent of the federal poverty guideline and have assets of less than $2,000. For a family of four, this would mean an annual income of less than $31,321, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services poverty guidelines.

Low-income people who are disabled or age 60 and older are exempt from gross income requirements but must have assets less than $3,250.

Q: How much does it cost?

A: This year the cost was $78.4 billion, up from $20.6 billion in 2002.

Q: Why are food stamps in the farm bill?

A: The USDA has always been charged with overseeing nutrition policy, dating back to 1939 when Congress enacted the first food stamp program to help distribute food amid widespread unemployment near the end of the Great Depression. It became part of the farm bill in the 1970s. Urban lawmakers supported the legislation’s nutrition policies, while rural lawmakers favored its price supports for crops like wheat and cotton.

Q: Why did House Republicans remove food stamps from the farm bill?

A: Both parts of the farm bill – food subsidies and nutrition – have grown over time and became targets of the growing influence inside the House Republican caucus of tea party supporters and others who want to cut federal spending.

Passing a farm policy-only bill was an attempt to get something passed – an earlier attempt in June failed – and into a House-Senate conference committee. Lawmakers then would try to produce a compromise version between the House bill and an earlier version passed by Senate, which does includes the longstanding nutrition programs.

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., said the House bill was the first step toward enacting farm policy that allows lawmakers to start “on a path forward that ultimately gets a farm bill to the president’s desk.”

Q: Were other nutrition programs eliminated in the House bill, too?

A: Yes. Republicans also dropped the Emergency Food Assistance Program, as well as others aimed at children, seniors and Native Americans. President Barack Obama warned lawmakers that he would veto any bill that doesn’t include nutrition policy.

Q: How likely is it that food stamps and other nutrition programs will be part of the final bill?

A: Hard to say. Even if a conference committee produces a bill, there’s no guarantee that it would pass both chambers, despite Obama’s veto threat. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, said there is little support for passing separate bills: one for farm policy and one for nutrition and aid programs.

“It would be a major mistake in policy and it would be a major mistake in getting a bill done,” she said in a Monday conference call with reporters. “It wouldn’t get done.”

Q: Would new farm policy still mean cuts in the food stamps?

A: The earlier House bill that was unsuccessful included more than $20 billion in cuts, compared with $4 billion in cuts in the Senate bill. Negotiations could produce something in the middle.

Q: What happens next?

A: Stabenow said the conference committee could begin work this week. “I’m willing to take whatever the House gives us and work with that,” she said.

Email: tgraff@mcclatchydc.com

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