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A Political Battle Over Food Stamps Could Leave These Farm Programs Stranded

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Passing the Farm Bill, an omnibus spending bill which provides funding for food and farm programs every five years was once considered a relatively nonpartisan process.

In 2018, the talks surrounding the Farm Bill are far more political – with Republicans in control of the White House and Congress, GOP policymakers have seen a chance to make cuts or add restrictions to benefit programs like SNAP – and small programs that assist disadvantaged families and farmers may be caught in the crossfire.

The 2008 Farm Bill was a game-changer, writer and policy analyst Nina Ichikawa told me. In 2008, Ichikawa said, more activists and other groups began to pay attention to the Farm Bill, leading to a longer process with more groups arguing for their divergent interests.

“It’s just taking longer because that’s how democracy goes,” said Ichikawa.

“The timing of the Farm Bill this time around is unusual because it’s happening in an election year,” Ichikawa said. She added that the timing may lead to more showy, eye-catching proposals, like the Trump Administration’s “Harvest Box” proposal, which she argued were designed to draw attention or reframe the conversation so that cuts would seem reasonable in comparison.

Many of the proposed changes to SNAP involve making SNAP benefits “more burdensome or difficult to get,” Ichikawa said.

While about 80% of the funding of the Farm Bill goes toward SNAP, the fates of other, smaller programs also hang in the balance. A number of programs risk losing their funding if the Farm Bill is not passed by its deadline on October 1.

After the Farm Bill’s deadline expires, these programs would be unfunded and be unable to function until the bill is passed.

And while that October 1 deadline may not seem close, there’s a precedent for Farm Bill talks to go on well past their deadline. The last Farm Bill had a deadline of October 1, 2012. But it didn’t end up getting passed until February 2014, leaving almost a dozen programs “stranded” without funding, in hiatus for over a year.

“These processes generally take many months,” said Ann Thrupp, the executive director at UC Berkeley’s Berkeley Food Institute.

Here are some of the important outreach and assistance programs with expiring funding. They could end up stranded if the 2018 Farm Bill goes over its deadline.

1. Food Insecurity Nutrition Assistance Program

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The Food Insecurity Nutrition Assistance, or FINI, program helps low-income families buy fresh fruits and vegetables directly from farmers. The program offers grants to nonprofits and agencies that help boost produce purchases for economically disadvantaged communities.

The FINI program contributes to programs that provide vouchers for families to use at farmers’ markets to get increased value for their SNAP benefits on fruits and vegetables.

Since EBT cards are often difficult to use at cash-only farmers’ market stalls, programs funded by FINI can exchange SNAP benefit value for tokens that are easier to use at a farmers’ market. According to Ichikawa, some programs have even found success in using an ATM-like program where anyone who needs to exchange EBT or debit card funds into tokens can do so, which reduces the stigma for those who are shopping with nutrition assistance.

In California, for example, the Ecology Center’s Market Match program received a FINI grant to help get SNAP recipients more value for their benefits when putting them toward fresh produce, as well as creating a statewide network to make nutrition assistance programs at farmers’ markets more consistent, including resources like Spanish language outreach.

2. Outreach and Assistance for Socially Disadvantaged and Veteran Farmers and Ranchers Program

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This program provide grants to universities and non-governmental organizations that assist and provide outreach for farmers who are primarily minorities or Spanish-speaking, in order to provide them with the necessary resources for successful farming operations.

There has been a history of minority farmers coming to the USDA for assistance and not getting the help they needed, which the Outreach and Assistance program was created to correct.

“[The Outreach and Assistance program] bridges the gap so that everyone can have access to these important USDA programs,” Ichikawa said.

Since the 2014 Farm Bill, 205 grants worth $35 million were awarded for the Outreach and Assistance program. In Alabama and Georgia, a grant from this program helped train African-American farmers in marketing and farm management to increase their farm revenue and improve the quality of life for farmers in economically distressed farming communities.

3. Beginning Farmers and Ranchers Program

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The Beginning Farmers and Ranchers program funds groups that do training programs for new and aspiring farmers.

“The [average] age of farmers in America is rising rapidly,” said Thrupp, pointing out the importance of training younger Americans to create the next generation of farmers.

Beginning Farmers and Ranchers grants fund organizations that ensure young farmers have the resources and education to start successful farming or ranching operations.

For example, UC Berkeley’s Growing Roots program trains beginning farmers from diverse communities, including urban and rural farmers and farmers from diverse racial backgrounds. Growing Roots focuses on improving access to sustainable farming education, increasing the use of organic and sustainable farming practices, and improving food safety compliance.

4. Organic Certification Cost Share Program

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This program helps make organic certification more accessible for farmers. Becoming organically certified can be a costly process for farm operators, but the Cost Share program helps defray annual certification costs for small and mid-sized farms, offering reimbursements of up to 75 percent of the annual cost of certification up to $750 for a farm.

According to the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, higher rates of participation in the Cost Share program correlate with states that have higher rates of organic farms and organic sales.

5. Farmers’ Market and Local Food Promotion Program

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The Farmers’ Market and Local Food Promotion program helps to improve local food systems and increase access to produce by building up connections like farmers’ markets and food hubs, which increase opportunities for smaller farms.

The program provides grants to programs like Appalachian Sustainable Development, which worked to increase visibility for farmers in Tennessee and Virginia through a promotional campaign including a road show that featured local farmers.

In Florida, Florida Organic Growers and Consumers received a grant to establish a weekly farmers’ market and develop a food-based community education program.

Demand Funding for Farm Bill Programs

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As the political battle over food stamps continues, it’s possible that even programs with bipartisan support will fall through the cracks and lose their funding.

In an op-ed about these stranded Farm Bill programs for The Hill, Congressman Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), wrote that these programs “represent the kind of innovative, time-tested solutions we should be rewarding on Capitol Hill.”

“Congress must pass a farm bill on time and provide more funding for these critical programs,” wrote Ryan. “If for any reason a farm bill has not been signed into law by September 2018, Congress should take action to keep these innovative, community-sustaining programs alive.”

It’s important to protect these programs that aid vulnerable communities and work to create a more just food system in the U.S. – if you want to help keep these programs funded, call your representative and voice your support for passing the 2018 Farm Bill without added cuts and restrictions to benefits programs like SNAP.

You can find your representative’s contact information here.

Ichikawa said that it’s silly for the country to allow programs that are doing good work and have public support to simply expire from a lack of funding.

“I think it is a real danger, and people should be involved in making sure we have these programs,” she said.

Lead Image Source: Shutterstock

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