President Obama signed the Farm Bill today at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Michigan, while the law’s principal Democratic sponsor, Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) said the nearly $1 trillion law, four contentious years in the making, “works for every American.”
The President praised
Democrats and Republicans for coming together to pass the bill, saying, “My position has always been that any farm bill I sign must include protections for vulnerable Americans. And thanks to the good of Debbie and others, this bill does that.”
The measure cuts about $9 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, over the next decade.
Video: SNAP Changes Put Millions at Risk, Say Advocates
Many advocates for the hungry found themselves sighing with relief at that figure; House Republicans wanted $40 billion in food stamp cuts over the same period. Still an estimated 850,000 households are set to lose an average $90 per month in food benefits.
“We’re really very disappointed how it turned out, said Hannah Lupien, Policy Director at the West Side Campaign Against Hunger in Manhattan, the nation’s oldest grocery style food pantry. “Our elected officials and advocacy groups are declaring it a victory. There’s nothing victorious about hungry people losing an average of $90 in benefits every month.” Lupien says about 25 percent of them are in New York City
Hannah Lupien Policy Director West Side Campaign Against Hunger
The farm bill targeted New York and 12 other states (depending on whom you talk to), that qualified people for SNAP benefits by giving them just $1 worth of home heating assistance under a program known as LIHEAP. Congress viewed the so-called “heat and eat” program as a loophole, and raised the minimum qualifying grant to $20 per household.
WSCAH serves about 11,000 people each month. Before the Farm Bill’s passage, Lupien and her colleagues projected it would be providing emergency food assistance to 128,000 this fiscal year, up from 75,000 in 2008.
“We’re unsure what New York and other states that utilize this program will be able to do to compensate for that change from $1 to $20, says Lupien. “We’re certainly not going to able to keep everyone on the program and certainly the intention of the Congress is to make sure …again, that those 300,000 households in New York, lose their benefits.”
These benefit cuts come on top of the expiration of an emergency increase in food aid in November, which affected everyone on SNAP. As Margarette Purvis, President of the Food Bank for New York, points out in a February 7th letter to The New York Times.
Charities will not be able to step in and save the day. In New York City, we’ve already seen what happens when SNAP benefits are cut: 85 percent of the food pantries and soup kitchens in Food Bank for New York City’s network saw more people on their lines after across-the-board cuts to SNAP went into effect this past November than they saw in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, and roughly half reported food shortages in that first month alone.
Since then, emergency unemployment benefits expired for another 1.7M Americans, during a bitter winter when fresh produce is seasonally unavailable. Senate Republicans blocked an effort to restore the benefits earlier this week.
“We know that we will see some people who we’ve never seen before because they’ve lost those $90 in SNAP benefits. What we believe is that we’ll see a lot of our same customers, more frequently. As opposed to seeing someone maybe once, twice, three times a year, maybe we’ll see them 4-5-6 times a year,” Lupien says.
Meanwhile, New York advocates for the hungry are turning to the state, to push for an increase in the minimum wage. They’re also working with New York City’s new mayor and City Council to provide universal, free school feeding programs to all children, so the low-income kids won’t have to trade between the stigma of food hand-outs and empty bellies.
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Back in Michigan, the President likened the bill to a “Swiss army knife,” because it does so much more than just help farmers, it helps jobs, innovation, research, infrastructure, and energy. He added, “The truth is a lot of folks go through tough times at some points in their lives. That doesn’t mean they should go hungry. Not in a country like America.”
Congress did increase funding to food pantries by a total $200M over the next decade, but Lupien says, “that $200 million is a drop in the bucket compared to the cuts that have been implemented, really in a war against our low-income neighbors.”
After leaving the food pantry, I stopped off at my local grocery store. It wasn’t lost on me that I could easily go there and buy whatever I needed – or wanted – to eat. Right in front me in the checkout, an older woman was holding her SNAP benefits card in one hand and, returning a package of coffee, a can of milk and a bottle of orange juice with the other. She didn’t have enough to cover the grocery bill. As she left with her much smaller bundles, the cashier said, “you still have 20 cents on the card.”