Passing a farm bill has become a delicate balance, especially as money directed to farmers is now less than 25% of the entire spending of the bill with the remainder heading towards food stamps and nutrition programs. Over the years, as more members of Capitol Hill have less rural constituents, their number of constituents on food stamps has become a way to get more Congressional members to support the farm bill every five years.
Expenditures for food assistance account for over half of USDA’s budget. About one in five Americans participated in at least one food assistance program at some point during a given year. And as the election approaches, it will not be an easy task to cut nutrition spending.
In the House budget approved earlier this spring, farm programs could face cuts as high as $33 billion over the next budget, while the Senate has indicated it is looking to cut something closer to $23 billion.
Last year, the Senate and House Agriculture Committees recommended $4.2 billion in nutrition cuts to the Super Committee as part of the deficit reduction process. The House budget calls for a whopping $133 billion in cuts to food stamps and nutrition programs over the next decade. The chairman’s budget includes a dramatic transformation of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as the food stamp program, which would cut $123 billion from the program and shift it to a state-run block grant program.
Republican Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana reintroduced legislation in March to cut $40 billion from federal farming support and federal nutrition assistance funding. Nationally, the Food Research and Action Center estimates that Lugar's bill would eliminate food stamp eligibility for 1 million people and cut school meals for 200,000 children.
Many Congressional proposals have stated that eliminating fraud and abuse can help save money, especially within the nutrition title. However, Deborah Hinde, Vital Bridges Center on Chronic Care/Heartland Health Alliance chief health care strategist, the federal food stamp program, officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, has successfully eliminated waste, fraud, and abuse in the last decade.
"The food stamp program is working at a 95% efficiency and accuracy rate," said Hinde. "The people who legitimately are food insecure are legitimately receiving food assistance." She added senior households are at greater risk of food insecurity under proposed cuts.
Over 90 national and regional hunger relief, public health, faith-based and other advocacy organizations sent a letter to Congress April 9 urging the Senate and House Agriculture Committees to strengthen and protect nutrition programs in the 2012 Farm Bill.
In recognition of the elevated need for food assistance and the consequences of hunger and poor nutrition, a diverse coalition of stakeholders is urging Congress to protect and strengthen farm bill nutrition programs. Their recommendations are guided by three shared principles: 1) protect against hunger; 2) improve nutrition and health outcomes among vulnerable populations; and 3) strengthen community-based initiatives that link farmers with consumers and increase access to healthy food.
"We recognize the challenge of drafting a Farm Bill in this budget environment, but nutrition programs help our most vulnerable citizens meet their most basic need - food," said Vicki Escarra, president and CEO of Feeding America. "Congress should protect and strengthen these programs, not cut them. Eighty four percent of SNAP benefits go to households with a child, senior or disabled person, and The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) helps food banks, churches and other charities provide meals and groceries to struggling families in their communities."
As the debate continues on the farm bill this year, it will be crucial to have an effective nutrition title to gain enough support from non-rural districts to get a bill that is palatable for everyone.