After two years of battles between legislators, in the media, and among interest groups, Congress passed the Agriculture Act of 2014, a bill more commonly known as the Farm Bill. The bill’s passage is a key component to protecting the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
A nearly inevitable cut to the SNAP program of approximately $8 billion (which will reduce nutrition benefits for about 850,000 Americans) has been the highlight of much political debate. Much conversation over who “deserves” nutrition benefits or how much assistance certain people should receive has continued, neglecting the most important issue—the people.
This problem should not be political. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), about 14.5 percent of Americans were food insecure at some time in 2012. Food insecurity is defined by not knowing where or how to find—or more specifically, pay for—your next meal. Food insecurity is not about not having enough food to feed people, as our country has plenty of food. The problem of food insecurity in this country is a problem of access—physical access to food for individuals who live too far from a grocery store and lack transportation and financial access to food for people who simply don’t make enough money to consistently feed their family.
The cuts to SNAP will result in about $90 per month for beneficiaries. How significant is $90 a month? According to the USDA, on average, it costs between $146 and $289 to feed a family of four for a week, so for a family on the “thrifty” $146 plan, $90 is a lot of money. The good news is that the cuts to the SNAP program as part of the Farm Bill are far less than they could have been, as the House of Representatives had originally proposed a $40 billion cut.
Moreover, deep within the nearly 1,000-page bill is a small but significant nationwide program that will allow SNAP recipients to double their benefits at farmers markets. The specific details of the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive program are still being ironed out, and there’s still much to be resolved, says Jeanette Rinehart of Walnut Ridge Farm in Flintstone, Md., who sells her produce at farmers markets in the Cumberland, Md., area. “On paper the increased benefits sound great, but the distribution system is very flawed,” she says. She adds that for vendors to accept the SNAP benefits, they must purchase the machines to process them, and without a grant it’s not worthwhile for vendors to accept the benefits because the volume of use is so small.
So there’s still a lot to figure out. Talking about this issue is a good first step. Connecting people with the right resources is the next one. Why is use of SNAP benefits at farmers markets still low in many areas? How can we help educate people? Let’s start that conversation!