Ceiling on Debt = Ceiling on Farm Bill Spending

Although the debt limit and budget kerfuffle has dominated Washington, DC, amidst the politicking and dueling press conferences, the preparation process for the next Farm Bill has proceeded apace. The outstanding question is whether agricultural budget cuts agreed to as part of a debt deal will cause Congress to speed up the Farm Bill reauthorization process.

The House Agriculture Committee has held eight Subcommittee hearings to educate new members about the USDA programs under their jurisdiction and assess the success of 2008 Farm Bill provisions. The House Subcommittee on Nutrition and Horticulture held two hearings in July of interest to the food justice advocacy community; an audit of Specialty Crop provisions (agriculture parlance for fruits, vegetables, nuts and dried beans), and of the nutrition programs authorized by the Farm Bill. The Senate Agriculture Committee’s pace has picked up too, with hearings in July on Rural Development programs, Specialty Crops and Organic programs. The Senate Committee has not yet considered the Farm Bill’s Nutrition Title (Title IV).

The constant theme in the hearings is that there will be significantly less money available this time around, and programs must do more with less, streamline, and reduce waste and fraud. All of the various budget plans offered include significant cuts to agriculture. Most of the proposed cuts have been to commodity and conservation programs, but the 2012 budget plan that passed the House of Representatives would turn the SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly called food stamps) program into a state block grant and could potentially reduce spending on the program by up to 20% over time. This worst-case scenario has galvanized advocacy groups to organize educational briefings for Congressional staff and encourage members to contact their legislators about the importance of food and nutrition programs to their communities.

The SNAP program continues to struggle against the perception that there is significant fraud and error, although the program’s error rate is at an all-time low of less than four percent. There is also the nagging contradiction in some minds about the coexistence of obesity and food insecurity. Rep. King (R-OH) asked during a House hearing how many malnourished children the SNAP program serves and suggested that the prevalence of diet related health conditions in low-income communities creates a serious “messaging problem” for the program.

Several representatives at the House Nutrition hearing lauded the connection between farmers’ markets and low-income consumers and encouraged USDA to do more to help facilitate the use of SNAP benefits at markets. On the Senate side, Agriculture Committee Chair Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) emphasized the importance of American fruit and vegetable production both as a driver of economic growth and jobs with annual production valued at more than $60 billion and as the source of nutritious foods necessary for stemming the tide of obesity and illness.

In general, USDA’s specialty crop marketing, organic, and farmers’ market promotion programs seem to have solid support as helping growing ag sectors, but several do not have authority beyond the end of 2012 and so will need to be explicitly reauthorized and new money found to fund them.

While it is hard to imagine deep cuts to SNAP during this period of prolonged economic hardship, emphasizing the program’s solid record of responding quickly to meet hunger needs and successful and popular efforts linking participants with healthy food make good talking points.

Congress is scheduled to begin its summer recess on Friday, August 5. That may be delayed, but Members will be in their states and districts during the month of August and it will be an important opportunity to let them know what your group’s Farm Bill priorities are and why.