House Farm Bill Heads to Vote with Blows to Food Planning Programs

In every election year, motivation for action on big issues tends to wane on Capitol Hill. This midterm year is certainly no exception with only a few "must do" items likely to make it across the finish line before campaign season takes over.

Among the issues with looming deadlines that will demand attention is the Farm Bill.

Expiring in September, this legislation covers a wide range of government activities and programs from nutrition assistance to land conservation, rural development to agricultural commodity support.

Partisan Anger on SNAP

This week the House of Representatives is poised to approve its version of a new Farm Bill. The vote is expected to be a close one given a number of controversial provisions of the version approved by the House Agriculture Committee strictly along party lines.

The primary opposition to the bill has been driven by criticism of changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). These changes would tighten and extend work requirements for SNAP recipients. Democrats have signaled strong opposition to the changes and will likely all vote against the bill when it hits the House floor.

Hits to Rural Development, Food Systems Planning

The House bill includes some significant and disappointing changes in federal policy related to food systems planning and access to healthy foods. Most notably, the bill undermines the Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program by providing no mandatory funding. The current Farm Bill allocated $30 million per year in mandatory spending. The Value Added Producer Grant Program suffers a similar fate in the House version.

The bill does reauthorize both the Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program and the Food Safety Outreach Program but does not offer needed expansions of those efforts.

The bill also fails to add new policy support for urban agriculture, regional food systems planning, or efforts to promote local food access and supply chains. In fact, the bill would arguably hamper existing farm-to-school food initiatives.

The committee chose not to incorporate provisions from the bipartisan Local Food and Regional Market Supply Act, nor does the measure include the Regional Food Economy Partnership program.

The bill also removed mandatory rural development funding for key infrastructure programs supporting water and wastewater loans and grants. Previously, $150 million was provided in mandatory spending. Under this bill, those programs would compete in the annual appropriations process for discretionary funding.

The elimination of mandatory funding for these key programs and the lack of progress on food systems planning issues is a major missed opportunity in the legislation for improving planning and food policy.

Controversy in Conservation

The conservation elements of the bill are a mixed bag.

There are funding and acreage increase for the Conservation Easement Program and Conservation Reserve Program along with useful reforms to the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). However, overall funding for the conservation title would fall.

Most controversially, the bill would eliminate the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and attempt to fold it into EQIP. This is a move strongly opposed by environmental and sustainable agriculture organizations.

Senate Outlook

Even if the bill survives a close vote in the House, the Senate poses an even bigger challenge. Senate Agriculture Committee leaders have suggested that many of the House provisions will not be included in their bill.

Moving the Farm Bill through the narrowly divided Senate will require more bipartisanship that the House bill provides. Some observers have speculated that existing farm policy may simply be extended until at least following the midterm elections.

Regardless, further debate on the measure will continue this year, providing an important opportunity to underscore for the Senate the importance of good planning in good farm and food policy.

Top image: Heart of the City Farmers Market in San Francisco advertises that SNAP is accepted as payment through the Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) system. Photo by Flickr user SPUR/Sergio Ruiz (CC BY 2.0).

About the Author
Jason Jordan is APA's director of policy.

May 16, 2018

By Jason Jordan