3 reasons to support farm bill’s nutrition provisions

Roger Johnson and Steven Krikava
September 5, 2018

Read the article as originally published in The Farmer

With the expiration of the 2014 Farm Bill less than a month away, Congressional ag leaders are headed to a conference committee to resolve differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill.

Farmers and consumers alike need a strong farm bill passed immediately, because their farm and food safety nets rely upon it. Proposed changes to the farm bill nutrition title threaten to hang up the conference committee. So, it is as important as ever for farm groups to band with their partners in the nutrition community in calling on Congress to protect the integrity of the consumer food safety net.

For organizations such as ours, National Farmers Union and Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger, there is little to commend in the House version of the farm bill, which was broadly condemned by progressive ag groups, conservationists and anti-hunger advocates. [“Mazon” is the Hebrew word for “food” or “sustenance.”] For those of us who are deeply concerned about the integrity of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and would like to get a strong farm bill passed into law, our message is clear: The conference committee must adopt the Senate’s nutrition provisions and reject the House position.

There are three reasons why ag groups should support upholding the integrity of the farm bill’s nutrition title: policy, process and politics.

The House farm bill’s nutrition title has been widely criticized by policy analysts and anti-hunger advocates for its harmful changes to SNAP. The bill contains changes that will cause millions of Americans in low-income households to lose their benefits, or have them significantly reduced. Many of these Americans live in rural communities and small towns, where a higher percentage of households (16%) rely on SNAP than in urban areas (13%).

Rural America economy needs ag
The economic vitality of rural America depends on agriculture, which is in a severe slump that is being exacerbated by the trade war. The SNAP safety net protects farmers — particularly small or beginning farmers — who face financial pressure due to low prices for their crops and livestock. SNAP protects farmworkers who may lose their jobs because of their employers’ financial stress. And SNAP protects rural communities that depend on profitable farmers to support jobs and the local economy.

Besides, most farm groups support a farm safety net for when disaster strikes or prices collapse. Consumers deserve a similar safety net.

The second reason is that the House bill is the product of a flawed process. In contrast to the Senate bill, the House bill was a purely partisan exercise. In the Senate, [ag committee] Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., worked with the ranking Democrat, Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich. Their bill received overwhelming and bipartisan support, passing with a historically strong vote of 86 to 11. The House bill, by contrast, received not a single Democratic vote either in committee or on the floor, and eventually passed by a razor-thin two-vote margin.

Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., the ranking Democrat on the House Ag Committee, explained the issue with the House bill this way: “Instead of working with Democrats on changes we could all get behind to improve the (SNAP) program and achieve real reform, Republicans set off on an ideological crusade. Crusades are a lousy way to run the government.”

After the Senate vote, in an interview with The Hagstrom Report, Peterson said, “If they [farm bill conferees] get something on SNAP similar to what the Senate is, I can deliver a lot of Democratic votes in the House.”

Which brings us to the third reason that agricultural groups should reject major changes to the nutrition title: the politics of getting a unified farm bill passed in both chambers. If the House provisions on SNAP are included in the final package, it is unlikely the bill will pass the Senate. Farm groups and consumer groups alike urgently want Congress to pass a farm bill this year. However, support for the House’s extreme changes and cuts to SNAP in the conference committee process threaten to kill any chance of a full farm bill reauthorization. If the House leadership continues to push its ideological campaign to undermine SNAP in the farm bill, they do so at great peril to America’s farmers and rural households.

Protecting the integrity of SNAP is the only pathway to ultimate passage of a farm bill this year. Farm groups can help ensure this by throwing their weight behind the Senate’s nutrition title.

Johnson, originally from Turtle Lake, N.D., is president of the National Farmers Union and resides in Washington, D.C. Krikava lives in Edina, Minn., and is a member of the board of directors of Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger.