A food shopper pushes a cart of groceries at a supermarket in Bellflower, Calif., on Monday, Feb. 13, 2023. (AP Photo/Allison Dinner)

The Farm Bill debate will be front-and-center in Congress this week, with the House Agriculture Committee holding their first official markup of draft legislative text Thursday, May 23rd.

After numerous delays and missed deadlines, Congress began the work-intensive process of analyzing draft text of the Farm Bill. It will be debating amendments, and ultimately bringing a final draft to the House and Senate floors, following the first House Agriculture Committee official markup meeting of draft legislative text on Thursday, May 23rd .

The clock is ticking, as the current Farm Bill expires September 30th, 2024.

There are clear obstacles to passing a Farm Bill by the September deadline, most notably deep partisan divisions over the Nutrition Title. House Republicans are proposing deep cuts to nutrition programs while House and Senate Democrats say they will vote against any Farm Bill that cuts nutrition. The Nutrition Title makes up around 80% of the overall $1.5 trillion projected federal Farm Bill budget over the next 10 years.

Deesmealz interviewed Salaam Bhatti, SNAP Director for FRAC (the Food Research and Action Center) about the differences between the House and Senate approaches to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Formerly known as “food stamps,” SNAP provides monthly food benefits to 41.2 million people per month. Rural people tend to use SNAP at a higher rate than urban and suburban areas.

The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Deesmealz: Can you explain why SNAP [the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program formerly known as “food stamps”] is so important? And can you explain why SNAP is critical in meeting the hunger and nutrition needs of rural America?

Bhatti: At FRAC, our mission is to end poverty-related hunger by strengthening the federal nutrition programs, SNAP being the number one line of defense against hunger. It’s why we are so emphatic on protecting and strengthening the program, because currently over 40 million people are utilizing these benefits every single month.

When it comes to that spread across the country, you will not find a single Congressional District where there are not thousands of SNAP participants. Hunger and food insecurity touch every part of America. It doesn’t matter if you live in urban, small town, or rural America, hunger is hurting our communities.

Rural Americans are facing different types of food access issues that others might not be aware of. For example, many rural communities don’t have grocery stores or any access to foods like fresh produce that are important for a well-balanced diet. So when we have attempts to cut SNAP benefits across the board, or attempts to restrict what you can buy with SNAP, these places with limited options (like many rural areas) are hit harder because they have fewer choices or places to purchase food. Many of these places are so remote, food is more costly because of transportation and delivery charges. It’s a double whammy for them, where SNAP benefits don’t go as far because of higher food prices and choices are limited because of less access to grocery stores or other food purchasing options.

Deesmealz: The Farm Bill re-authorization process has been incredibly slow during this cycle, but it is finally getting down to the phase where the draft text is being released and the Committee mark-up process is coming. What is your analysis of the process so far, and do you have thoughts about SNAP provisions in the drafts emerging in the House and Senate based on what we know today?

Bhatti: We’ve been very happy with what we’ve seen come out of the Senate so far. There are provision in the Senate version of the Farm Bill that protect and strengthen SNAP, especially the Thrifty Food Plan.

In the House version, there are massive cuts. Chairman Thompson [Representative Glenn Thompson, House Agriculture Committee Chair, R-PA] in the House seeks to roll back the Thrifty Food Plan formula adjustment that happened in the previous Farm Bill. What he [Thompson] says is “revenue neutral” is actually a $30 billion cut over 10 years to the SNAP program. That will effectively reduce purchasing power for SNAP recipients.

So we are not thrilled about the House draft because of proposed cuts, but there are other House provisions that we are concerned about as well. The House is seeking to police low-income participants by doing studies on what they are buying, restricting what or where SNAP recipients can purchase with their benefits. It is overwhelmingly Orwellian when you could look at the rising food insecurity of America coupled with stagnant wages and increasing rents, and really do something to end hunger to the scale we accomplished during the pandemic. Then, we cut child poverty in half and significantly reduced food insecurity through the pandemic emergency allotments. Instead, the House is looking at restricting benefits as a means of “solving hunger in America.” That just doesn’t make sense to us.

Deesmealz: Can you speak to the popularity of SNAP? I have seen polling data that demonstrates broad bipartisan support for SNAP, even with majority Republican support for increasing benefits. I have been to several anti-hunger conferences and everyone, emergency food distributors and food banks included, points to SNAP as the key solution to fighting hunger.

Bhatti: Food banks know. They know that for every one meal they can provide, SNAP provides nine meals for low-income people. They get it. Food banks shouldn’t be the first line of defense. They should just be there for emergency situations.

And it is true that SNAP is an overwhelmingly popular program among the public. Recent polls show that not only is SNAP supported by a majority of Democrats, Independents, and Republicans, but that a majority also supports increases to SNAP benefits as well. Increasing benefits is something that FRAC has been banging the drum on, basically moving from the Thrifty Food Plan to the slightly higher “Low Cost Food Plan.” That would effectively increase people’s benefits and give them the tools to have more nutritious diets.

Deesmealz: What else would you like readers to understand about SNAP and the Farm Bill?

Bhatti: The Farm Bill provides an opportunity to address food insecurity overall, and support rural communities and farmers at the same time. Of course, the Farm Bill in the past has been bipartisan every single time. It addresses the priorities of millions of households, those struggling with the income or resources they need to put food on the table. SNAP simply improves their lives.

We’re hopeful that Congress will return to these roots of bipartisanship to advance a bold and equitable Farm Bill that protects and strengthens SNAP. We are the most powerful and richest country in the history of the world and we have to cut our grocery budget? That’s just not right.

This interview was conducted Thursday, May 16th, the day before House Agriculture Committee Chair Glenn Thompson released his full bill draft. In response to Thompson’s draft, Kelly Horton, FRAC’s Interim President, released the following statement:

“Text released today by House Agriculture Committee Chair G.T. Thompson poses a serious threat to the health and wellbeing of the more than 41.4 million people who rely on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to put food on the table. Thompson’s proposal slashes future Thrifty Food Plan benefit adjustments — which SNAP benefits are based on — by nearly $30 billion over a decade. . . . You can’t lead a nation if you can’t feed a nation. Hungry people can’t wait.”

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