by Kirsten Moore, Cooperative Services Director
As of writing this article, the U.S. House of Representatives had just voted down House Resolution 2: the Agriculture and Nutrition Act of 2018 (a.k.a. “the farm bill”). There was also a motion to reconsider, and so it is possible the same bill would be taken up again soon. A new farm bill would replace the Agricultural Act of 2014, expiring September 30. The Senate hopes to bring their version of the bill to the floor this June. Once both houses pass bills, the differences will be reconciled and sent to the President to sign into law.
The Congressional Research Service (CRS) says farm bills pass about every five years covering farm commodities, nutrition assistance, conservation, horticulture, and bioenergy. Passage is complicated due to competition for funding from many (sometimes conflicting) interests: farm advocates; commodity associations; state organizations; nutrition and public health officials; and groups representing conservation, recreation, rural development, faith, local foods, and organic production.
Farm bills affect the Co-op and many of our partners, from farmers and producers to consumers and constituents because they impact trade; nutrition assistance; business development; agricultural research and insurance; technical and marketing support; and air, soil, water and energy. The financial impacts of the farm bill can be felt in wallets, due to effects on pricing and government benefits or assistance.
Nutrition Assistance Programming
Title IV: Nutrition is the largest component of farm bills, comprising 80% of spending. It includes the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, known in Wisconsin as FoodShare/QUEST); the Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) which supports food banks, pantries, and other emergency food providers; and the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). According to CRS, “The bill reauthorizes SNAP and [TEFAP] and retains most of the eligibility and benefit calculation rules in SNAP.” However, some changes proposed give some of our partners pause:
•LIHEAP payments would be treated differently when calculating SNAP benefits. According to Feeding Wisconsin (an association including Second Harvest Foodbank of Southern Wisconsin), the House farm bill would “eliminate the connection between SNAP households that qualify for heating assistance to pay for utilities and food (except for seniors) by severing the connection between SNAP and receipt of energy assistance through LIHEAP.”
•The bill would enact new policies related to SNAP employment provisions. Feeding Wisconsin says one new policy would expand those who can only receive time-limited benefits from 18-50 years of age to 18-60 years of age and include unemployed and underemployed parents with children above the age of six. Time-limited benefits would also be reduced to one month instead of three before they must be working or participating in a qualified training program for at least 20 hours per week. Kids Forward* notes changes proposed “will make it easier for states to impose work requirements that have the effect of taking critical SNAP benefits away from people who are unable to find work or to get enough hours.”
•States like Wisconsin would no longer be able to offer SNAP benefits automatically to households with low income that receive non-cash benefits from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families funded programs such as the Job Center of Wisconsin’s employment services. The Wisconsin Legislative Fiscal Bureau (LFB) says these proposed changes eliminate SNAP eligibility for 11% of state SNAP recipients and over 23,000 children in SNAP participating households. “These children would also likely lose eligibility for free and reduced lunches in schools,” says the LFB, since enrollment in SNAP results in eligibility for these meals.
•SNAP retailers (including the Co-op) would be subject to new authorization, issuance and redemption laws; required to stock a greater variety of foods; required to pay for electronic benefit transfer machines; and provide additional funding to prevent illegal sales of SNAP benefits. Feeding Wisconsin says little is known about the impact these changes would have on food access or retailers.
Our partners welcome a few provisions in the House version of the bill related to nutrition:
•New funds would be available for Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive (FINI) grants, which provide grants to organizations like the Co-op for fruit and vegetable incentives like Double Dollars. We received pilot funding for Double Dollars through a FINI grant provided to the City of Madison in FY2017, and now Co-op shoppers support the program through a combination of cash donations and reusing bags, which saves the Co-op money for the Double Dollars Fund.
•TEFAP would receive new funding for a “Farm to Food Bank” program nationwide.
•The Commodity Supplemental Program providing food to low income seniors would be reauthorized.
Nutrition programming has been included in farm bills since 1973. The National Farmers’ Union (of which Wisconsin Farmers Union* is a member), says “food and farm programs go hand-in-hand, and should continue to be included in the same comprehensive legislation.”
They also noted currently:
•SNAP benefits recipients receive on average $125.99/month or $1.40 per meal.
•79% of SNAP recipients work, are looking for work, or are unable to work due to disability or care-taking responsibilities.
•Able-bodied adults without dependents only receive SNAP for three months in three years if not meeting work requirements.
•SNAP has one of the lowest Federal program fraud rates, at 1.3%.
•Participation is falling, having declined 9% since 2012.
Second Harvest offers free drop-in and by appointment sessions at the Co-op for customers to learn about SNAP eligibility and enroll if eligible. Working with their specialists cuts down the time it takes to enroll in SNAP and ensures recipients understand the process and benefits received. They visit each of the Co-op’s locations once monthly, and you can check the Reader and website calendar to find dates and times. In 2017, Second Harvest assisted 19 SNAP applicants with enrollment, and referred 9 clients to other services via the Co-op. Second Harvest claims applications completed via the Co-op will generate an estimated $42,501 in local economic activity, or more than 8,761 meals.
Organic Standards and Support
The House farm bill has impacts on organic standards and organic farm assistance. The bill eliminates funding for the National Organic Cost Share Program aiding farmers with costs of annual organic certification. The makeup and function of the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) would also change. It is a citizen advisory board that maintains consistent nationwide organic standards and includes a variety of interests: farmers, consumers, certifiers, conservationists, scientists and producers. The National Organic Coalition (NOC), of which National Cooperative Grocers* and Equal Exchange are members, claims “the [current] statutory authority and structure of the NOSB is sound” and the bill contains unnecessary reforms such as clarifying that farm, handler, and retail employees can fill seats; and requiring an additional task force be created to review petitions to add substances that are approved by the Food and Drug Administration or Environmental Protection Agency to the organic National List of Allowable Substances (currently the NOSB itself conducts the reviews). The NOC gave these provisions an “F” on their 2018 House farm bill scorecard. NOC noted a few positives in the bill, giving a “B-” for modest efforts to increase funding to $30 million for the Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative. NOC gave an “A” to including $5 million for improving organic import data tracking systems and providing additional funding for the Organic Data Initiative, which will produce reliable data about production and sales trends.
Land and Water Conservation
According to the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC), which includes members such as the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute* and Organic Valley, voluntary conservation programs like the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) are “immensely popular, both with farmers and with sustainability advocates.” NSAC claims voluntary conservation programs help farmers move towards more sustainable operations and turn sometimes as many as 75% of qualified applicants away due to underfunding. The proposed farm bill, where these programs are authorized, eliminates CSP, replacing it with a stewardship contracts component within the Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP). EQIP does not have the same features as CSP and the change, according to NSAC, does not retain an equal split between EQIP cost share and stewardship contracts. The NOC also has concerns about conservation program reform, strongly opposing the provision that repeals CSP because it is a “critically important program for organic farmers” and there is a payment limit inequity in the current EQIP program that is not addressed in the 2018 bill that could improve access for organic farmers. “Currently, the payment limit for the EQIP Organic Initiative is $80,000 over six years, whereas the limit in the general EQIP program pool is $450,000 over six years.” While there are concerns about EQIP, NSAC says one change in the farm bill “eliminates the requirement that at least 60% of total EQIP funding go to support livestock operations. Historically, this set-aside has led to a significant portion of EQIP awards funding concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). Eliminating this set-aside may help to ensure that EQIP funding reflects demand.”
Lastly, some raise concerns about the House farm bill protections and providing for small and family farms. Wisconsin Farmers Union’s Government Relations Director Kara O’Connor said “The House Farm Bill makes no substantive improvements to farm bill dairy programs,” and in Wisconsin we are losing 1.5 dairy farms per day. She also claims the bill weakens payment limitations for commodity programs, opening subsidies to more of the nation’s wealthiest corporate producers. The NSAC says this farm bill would exempt partnerships and corporations from the commodity program’s adjusted gross income (AGI) means testing provision. Current law says individuals and legal entities with an average AGI exceeding $900,000 are ineligible for subsidies, and the proposed changes would allow anyone currently ineligible to reorganize as a partnership or corporation to avoid the AGI testing. NASC Policy Director Greg Fogel claims these changes place family farms at a disadvantage, and that “it is painfully ironic given the current debate over work requirements in SNAP that the same proposal would remove work requirements for the commodity program.”
What Can You Do for the Farm Bill?
There are other provisions in the farm bill that we did not have room to cover, and chances are there will still be farm bill debate in both houses this summer. If you are interested in telling your legislators what you think of the 2018 farm bill, we recommend personal visits, sending letters, writing personalized emails or making phone calls directly to your elected officials. The more personalized your message, the more likely it is to be heard. You can find your Representative at www.house.gov/representatives/find-your-representative (link is external) and find Senators Tammy Baldwin and Ron Johnson at www.senate.gov/general/contact_information/senators... (link is external). Some of our partners, such as Feeding Wisconsin, Wisconsin Farmers Union, and the National Organic Coalition have action alerts sign-ups on their websites, so you know when major farm bill activity is underway. Thank you to our Owners who are currently involved and interested in a strong farm bill. We encourage Owners to learn what is at stake and tell your legislators what matters to you.
*Kids Forward, Wisconsin Farmers Union, and Michael Fields Agricultural Institute are members of Community Shares of Wisconsin, supported by the Community CHIP program at the registers. The Co-op is a member of National Cooperative Grocers.