SNAP in the Farm Bill
The Farm Bill is popularly associated with the provision of agricultural subsidies, conservation programs, and new farm policies. So why should we care about it when we’re talking about the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)? Because for the past several decades, the legislation authorizing SNAP has been included in the Farm Bill. In fact, the nutrition title is the largest of the 12 titles covered in the Farm Bill. Of the programs covered by nutrition, SNAP accounts for 95% of all spending. Overall, nutrition spending makes up 80% of the total budget for the Farm Bill. Nutrition in the United States is thus very much determined by the provisions, policies and funding allocations in the U.S. Farm Bill.
The first decade of the 21st century saw increases in funding for SNAP, as well as the implementation of pilot projects and new innovations to begin retooling SNAP to promote healthier nutrition. Because SNAP is so central in reducing poverty and food insecurity in the United States, it has historically received backing from both political parties.
However, the 2014 Farm Bill represented a departure from this track record. The version of the bill passed by House Republicans slashed SNAP spending by $40 billion. The bill would have imposed mandatory drug testing on recipients, and required all adults, ages 18-50, without minor children, to work or enroll in a work-training program before they could receive benefits. These requirements would have fundamentally changed the nature of SNAP and excluded millions of recipients.
Such changes posed a serious risk to the program, especially at a time when the economy is still recovering. In fact, one of SNAP’s greatest contributions is its reliability during times of economic downturn. The program is regarded as one of the most important safety nets in place to soften the impact of economic recessions and generate economic activity to promote recovery in the nation. Any cuts made to SNAP when the economy is still vulnerable could result in a setback. Fortunately, SNAP sustained more moderate cuts at a level of $8 billion in the enacted law. Still, full funding of SNAP is necessary as is redesigning the program to promote healthy nutrition in the years ahead.
When Congress is looking to cut overall spending in the farm bill, lawmakers have to decide which parts of the bill to cut. Often this comes down to which components of the bill have a stronger lobbying voice. SNAP supporters are thus up against the agricultural lobby—one of the largest and most generously-funded groups in the United States. Consequently, funding for SNAP is not just a question of the enormous needs of people supported by the program itself, but it is also influenced by other initiatives in the Farm Bill. Additionally, policies are often influenced by the interests of other organizations focused on the Farm Bill. If SNAP supporters want to reshape the program for nutrition, they may have to gain the support of at least some members of the agricultural industry. This can be difficult if nutrition programs (for instance, a movement to reduce the consumption of foods high in fat and/or sugar content) go against current industry business models (which may be encouraging the production and consumption of “unhealthy” foods). The politics of SNAP is thus a very delicate balancing act.
Within the SNAP advocacy community, the following issues are of particular interest:
- Streamlining the determination of eligibility requirements and benefit amounts to decrease red tape and encourage more people to enroll in SNAP
- Ensuring adequate support for the states in the administration and implementation of SNAP
- Increasing outreach efforts to attract the remaining 25% of Americans who are eligible for SNAP but are not participating in the program
- Re-evaluating the Thrifty Food Plan (TFP) to verify that it accurately reflects food costs in the United States (for instance, restructuring the TFP so that market baskets are estimated for each region of the United States to reflect the wide variation in food costs across the country)
- Reducing the number of “food deserts” in the United States by supporting programs that promote the construction of and access to healthy food retailers in low-income communities
- Extending access to farmers’ markets by implementing a program to support installation of EBT equipment at all farmers’ markets
- Promoting nutrition in SNAP by:
- Increasing funding for the Specialty Crop program to provide incentives for farmers to grow fruits and vegetables rather than commodity crops like corn and soy
- Increasing funding for SNAP-Ed
- Instituting nutrition incentives that give SNAP participants a discount or cash-back for the purchase of fruits and vegetables
- Re-authorizing the Farmers Market Promotion Program
- Maintaining and increasing support of conservation programs
- Increasing research targeted towards farmland stewardship, organic farming, crop innovation, and crop and livestock protection
- Using other incentives and or restrictions on certain food purchases.