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Hunger Games

As the Farm Bill moves on to the full houses of Congress, Sen. Gillibrand and others protest cuts to needy families

by Amy Halloran on May 22, 2013

The Farm Bill, also known as the Agricultural Reform, Food, and Jobs Act of 2013, passed in the agriculture committees of both the U.S. Senate and House last week, and moved on to the full bodies for further debate. As the bill passed the Senate Agriculture Committee, Democratic New York state Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand was among five of the legislation’s dissenters.

One of the key contested topics in the omnibus bill is cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits.

“I am deeply concerned with the drastic cuts this bill makes to SNAP that will literally take food away from hungry children, while protecting corporate welfare for insurance companies based in Bermuda, Australia and Switzerland who don’t need it,” Gillibrand said in a statement issued May 14.

When the 2012 Farm Bill passed the Senate, Gillibrand had similar complaints. The bill was not signed into law in the fall because it reached a stalemate in the House of Representatives. The version of the bill the Senate is now debating includes Gillibrand’s proposed $4.1 billion cut to SNAP; the House version proposes $20 billion in cuts to the program.

The tradition of tying SNAP—or food stamp—benefits to farm benefits in the Farm Bill began decades ago as a way to get legislators with urban constituencies to buy into the needs of rural states. This link has become less useful as politics have become more partisan and the economics of farming and eating have changed.

In April, Gillibrand circulated a letter in support of fully funding SNAP; more than a third of the Senate signed it. Nationwide, organizations like AARP and Vote Vets have been active supporters, defending the food benefits on behalf of seniors and vets, who, along with children, make up most of SNAP recipients.

More than 1,300 hunger relief agencies, including the Regional Food Bank of Northeastern New York, signed onto a letter to Congress authored by Feeding America, the country’s leading hunger-relief agency.

“At the state level and at the national level we work with Feeding America and we are trying to get rid of the cuts to the SNAP program or at least minimize cuts they make,” said Mark Quandt, executive director of the Regional Food Bank. The agency distributed nearly 28 million pounds of food in 23 counties in 2012.

Any cut is going to have an impact on food banks, Quandt said. When the public sector fails to bridge the gaps that cause hunger, people will turn to the private sector.

“They’ll turn to food pantries, and in some cases to soup kitchens to supplement what they can’t get for their families,” said Quandt.

Cuts to SNAP benefits affect the emergency food relief sources people access. Though food banks try not to cut what they give away, sometimes they must so they don’t have to turn anybody away. Increasing fundraising efforts is another answer, but many food pantries are already operating on slim budgets and have minimal access to funds.

Sen. Gillibrand’s amendment to the Farm Bill restores the $4.1 billion cuts through cuts in subsidies to crop insurance companies, many of which are located overseas.

While arguments against food stamps are often caged in terms of entitlements, the USDA noted that every SNAP dollar spent returns $1.79 to local communities. This kind of economic upside has the potential to change minds set against SNAP. However, prejudices run deep, even as more Americans than ever are seeking help from the federal program as the 2008 recession continues to impact household finances.

“Federal nutrition assistance programs are more important than ever,” said Linda Bopp, executive director of Hunger Solutions New York, an organization that works to end hunger. “More than one in six households in New York do not have enough money to buy the food they need for themselves or their family. The proposed cuts will have a detrimental effect on too many New Yorkers, and will take food out of the hands of the state’s most vulnerable.”

A recent outreach convention for the Nutrition Outreach and Education Program (NOEP) was an opportunity to highlight the importance of SNAP in the Farm Bill. Speakers and representatives from 70 groups, such as Capital District Community Gardens, New York State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, New York State Education Department, New York State Office for the Aging, and AARP New York demonstrated materials and methods they used to help increase people using SNAP benefits.

Only 70 percent of eligible New Yorkers currently receive benefits, so reaching out to people and communities who can use this help is crucial.