Senate Farm Bill Benefits Nutrition

Last Thursday, Chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), and Ranking Member Pat Roberts (R-KS) unveiled their 900-page revision of the farm bill for the Senate Ag committee's vote. At least $23 billion in cuts are expected in this year's farm bill and at stake is funding for local food programs, nutrition (like food stamps) and conservation. The Senate's version of the 2012 bill was passed by the committee with 16 to 5 in favor, despite opposition from four Southern senators (MS, AR, GA and KS) over commodity safety nets and from New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand over cuts to the SNAP title (a.k.a. food stamps) and changes to dairy programs.

The bill, which replaced controversial direct payments with a crop insurance program, proposed cutting $24.7 billion in funding over 10 years. As expected, four billion of these dollars would come from SNAP — one of the farm bill's largest titles.

Nonetheless, Stabenow and Roberts succeeded in creating a bipartisan version of the notoriously convoluted farm bill that won praise from advocacy groups like Wholesome Wave for increased nutritional program funding. The Senate bill provides $70 million in annual funding for specialty crop (fruits and vegetables) block grants, $20 million a year for Hunger-Free Community Incentive Grants, double the funding — from $10 million to $20 million — a year for the promotion of local food and farmers markets, double the funding for community food projects, and innovations in SNAP including the use of SNAP in Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs). It also maintains funding for the Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program.

For organizations like Michel Nischan's Wholesome Wave — which focuses on healthy food access for low-income consumers — the increased nutritional funding in the Senate's bill is crucial. In a statement on Wholesoem Wave's website, Nischan says, "We are encouraged to see the bipartisan support of this important piece of proposed legislation."

But despite a remarkable amount of positive press for the Stabenow and Roberts' bill, critics have underscored the minimal funding in the bill for the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, maintaining that it will hurt job creation and discourage novice farmers.

The Senate's bill still has many obstacles to get through before it becomes a law. It will now go to the Senate floor for a full vote, and then move on to the House. In the meantime, the House is still holding its farm bill hearings.