Last Thursday, the Republican House voted to remove the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) from the Farm Bill. It took a wee while for me to get everything about this clear in my mind – I was fairly au fait with SNAP, but lacked much knowledge of the Farm Bill. Given the complexities of it, I broke it down into bite sized chunks -hopefully this will help others to get a handle on it too!
1) What is SNAP and who does it help?
The Food and Nutrition Service of the USDA describe SNAP as a program which “offers nutrition assistance to millions of eligible, low-income individuals and families and provides economic benefits to communities.” In 2009, 45 million people were eligible for benefits, of which 32 million actually received them. Most of the recipients of this type of assistance are children and the elderly. Many of them are the “working poor.” In 2009, 43 percent of SNAP recipients were below the poverty line. With the receipt of SNAP though, 13 percent of that group moved back above the poverty line.
While SNAP is very efficient at reducing food insecurity in needy families (although unemployed adults with no dependents may only receive SNAP for 3 months of a 3 year time frame), according to Feeding America, the benefits often don’t last participants for the entirety of each month. SNAP plays an important role, but expanding it further would definitely be of nutritional benefit to many of America’s poorest families.
2) What is the Farm Bill?
In short, the Farm Bill is basically the legislation that covers all agricultural policies in the US. It’s quite a complex legislation due to the huge number of ‘titles’ – essentially subcategories – which are part of it and due to the wide range of vested interests that are involved in these. In 2008, the Titles included commodity programs; conservation; trade; nutrition; credit; United States rural development; research; forestry; energy; horticulture; livestock; crop insurance and disaster assistance; commodity futures; trade and tax provisions; and miscellaneous. Each Farm Bill and its titles are renewed (and sometimes altered) every five years or so.
So, how is it linked to SNAP? The Farm Bill has been linked to food stamps since 1973. The Nutrition Title was the largest Title in the Farm Bill, covering 75 percent of its expenditure, of which SNAP accounted for 95 percent.
3) So, what does removing SNAP from the Farm Bill mean?
It depends on who you ask. As I understand it though, it is a blow to ensuring food security for the poorest families in the US. It transfers funding from those experiencing poverty to large agricultural corporations. The integration of SNAP and the Farm Bill wasn’t ideal – Michael Dimock argued in an article over at Civil Eats that the separation of agriculture and nutrition opens new possibilities in achieving better food policies that are less tied to Big Ag interests. I don’t disagree with him. But getting such good food policies approved may be an enormous challenge, and in the interim, if this Farm Bill sticks, there are a lot of people who might just find themselves wondering where their next meal is going to come from.
Gail Collins writing in the New York Times
Michael Dimock at Civil Eats
Marion Nestle at Food Politics