Op-Ed: The Farm Bill Everyone Can Hate









Image: Economic Research Service, USDA

by Ed Yowell

February 5th, 2014


*The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not constitute the opinions of Food Systems Network NYC.*


If the hallmark of bi-partisan legislation is that everyone can find something in it to hate, then the 2014 Farm Bill is a triumph of bi-partisanship.


Congressional leadership, responding to historically low approval ratings and growing impatience and anger back home in many members’ districts and states, particularly rural, agreed, in October 2013, to confer on a joint Farm Bill.  The conference began more than a year after a fractious Congress allowed the 2008 Farm Bill to expire in 2012, an unprecedented lapse in the 80 year history of Farm Bills.  In January 2014, Congressional conferees produced a joint Farm Bill Conference Report. 


The House, on January 29, passed the Agriculture Act of 2014 in a bi-partisan vote of 251 to 166.  The Senate, on February 4, passed the bill in its bi-partisan vote of 68 to 32, with New York Senators split, Kirsten Gillibrand voting “Nay,” largely because of the SNAP cut the bill contains, and Charles Schumer voting “Yea.”  President Obama is expected to sign the bill, perhaps this Friday in Michigan, the home state of Senator Debbie Stabenow, the chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee. 


In the 2011 run up to a new, what should have been, 2012 Farm Bill, groups around the nation, including the New York City Food and Farm Bill Working Group, called for a “Food and Farm Bill” that would provide much needed change in our food and farm policy -- supporting innovative, sustainable farming and food, reforming subsidy programs benefiting industrial agriculture, leveling the “plowing” field for small and mid-scale family farmers, and supporting an end to hunger and improving access to healthful food for all.  After a long and painful process, we are a presidential signature away from a comprehensive Farm Bill that, at best, is bitter sweet -- accomplishing some and failing on much.  (For more on the torturous path to a new Farm Bill, see http://www.foodsystemsnyc.org/article/farm-bill-wasnt.)


Farm Bill is the generic name for each of the succession of roughly five-year, omnibus bills that govern food and farming in the United States.  Each bill has a particular, unique, name reflecting the political climate at the time of passage.  The new Farm Bill, the conference version of the Senate Agriculture Reform, Food, and Jobs Act and the House Federal Agriculture Reform and Risk Management Act (suffering the acronym-laced name, FARRM Act), unambitiously, and perhaps contritely, named the Agriculture Act 2014, replaces the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008.  In a word, “Reform,” common to both House and Senate bills, is absent in the name of the new Farm Bill, perhaps a sign that both Democrats and Republicans, albeit for different reasons, feel that the new Farm Bill misses the mark on reform.


In terms of the Farming Titles, the new Farm Bill is a mixed bag for sustainable and just agriculture.  On the upside, the Act invests more than $1.2 billion during the next five years in innovative programs for beginning farmers, local food, organic agriculture, rural development, and specialty crops and reconnects crop insurance subsidies to basic conservation requirements.  It includes a requirement to label meat as to country of origin and, importantly, does not include a number of attempted assaults on environmental programs, fair competition, and states’ rights to regulate aspects of food production within their boundaries.  On the downside, disappointingly, the Act substantially cuts Conservation Title funding.  And, notably, according to the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, it “fails to reform farm commodity and crop insurance subsidies and continues the regime of uncapped, unlimited payments” to large-scale agriculture (For more on the Act and farming Titles, see http://sustainableagriculture.net/blog/2014-farm-bill-outcomes/.)


In terms of the Nutrition Title and SNAP, the upside is that the downside is not as down as it might have been.  The Act contains an $8 billion, ten-year SNAP cut, as contained in the Senate’s pre-conference version of the Farm Bill and as opposed to the $40 billion SNAP cut contained in the House Ag Committee’s pre-conference version of the Farm Bill.  The new Farm Bill’s SNAP cut is focused on the “Heat and Eat” (LIHEAP categorical eligibility) programs of 16 states and the District of Columbia, including New York, which will suffer the largest share of the cut.  (For more on Heat and Eat, see http://www.dailykos.com/story/2014/01/28/1273103/-Cut-in-Food-Stamps-Targets-Benefits-Paid-in-Northeast-West-Coast-Mich-Mont-Wisc-DC#).


Proponents of the cut regard Heat and Eat SNAP programs as programmatic “loopholes,” enabling some jurisdictions to inappropriately increase SNAP benefits.  Opponents regard the programs simply as justifiable means to increase what they believe are woefully inadequate SNAP benefits.  Understandably, any Farm Bill cut to SNAP is painful, particularly on the heels of the November 2013 across-the-board SNAP cuts resulting from the expiration of the temporary American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) SNAP benefit boost.  (For more on opinions regarding the SNAP cut, see http://www.ag.senate.gov/newsroom/press/release/what-supporters-of-food-assistance-programs-are-saying and https://nyccah.org/farmbillstatement1-29 and http://www.foodbanknyc.org/.)


When the New York City Food and Farm Bill Working Group convened in 2011, its policy starting point was advocating to retain the successes of the 2008 Farm Bill and to convert its failures and omissions into successes in the new Farm Bill.  And, no doubt, so it will be again when advocacy begins on the 2019 Farm Bill.  High on the list in 2018 should be reforming commodity and crop insurance subsidies and structurally fixing SNAP benefits, perhaps by pegging them to the higher USDA Low–Cost Food Plan, instead of the lower Thrifty Food Plan, as they are now.  This would yield a structurally sound benefit increase of about 25 to 30 percent -- for a family of four, including two young children, based on about $703 per month in the Low-Cost Plan as opposed to about $553 per month in the Thrifty Plan, or about $1.95 per meal as opposed to $1.53 per meal. 


For now, it is time to start thinking about the next national, cyclical food challenge, the 2015 Child Nutrition Act Reauthorization.