Friday, March 07, 2008

Farm Bill Reforms Must Be Permanently Funded

By Kathryn Sherlock

It's stunning that in a country with such abundant resources, know-how and advanced technology, we can’t seem to figure out how to end hunger.

Second Harvest reported in 2006 that 35.5 million people, 12.6 million of whom were children, experienced food insecurity (the government’s more palatable term for people who are hungry). Households with children reported food insecurity at almost double the rate of households without children. New Mexico ranked second in the nation behind Mississippi in food insecurity between 2004 and 2006.

Congress has an opportunity to do something significant toward ending hunger as they make their final decisions on the Farm Bill. What gets included (or not) will set U.S. agricultural policy for the next five years or more. This impacts everyone in New Mexico.

The Nutrition Title of the Farm Bill includes the Food Stamp Program and The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP), which helps supply food banks around the country. In the U.S., 26 million people use food stamps each month to help prevent food insecurity -- half of these people are children. Yet, Congress has failed to update this successful program to meet society’s changing needs. Food stamps currently provide recipients only $1 per meal. Eighty percent of these benefits get used up by the middle of the month. The program’s requirements for financial eligibility and benefits are badly out of date (limits on savings were set in 1985). Food Stamp benefits do not adjust for inflation, so as food prices rise, benefits buy less food.

In 2007, both the House and Senate passed versions of the Farm Bill, including about $4 billion in improvements to Food Stamps and TEFAP. The changes, although modest, are essential updates to these programs. They include increasing the income and childcare deductions for food stamp applicants (income determines benefit levels) and raising the minimum monthly benefit from $10 to $18 -- the first increase in 30 years. TEFAP funding is increased from $140 to $250 million per year. Of great concern is that if these changes are not permanently funded, 300,000 people would lose benefits and millions more will see benefits cut when the changes expire in 2013. Improvements need to be permanently paid for, preferably with savings generated by reforming the outdated and unjust commodity payment system.

The key to really helping hungry families is to see that the best possible provisions for Food Stamps and TEFAP are adopted in the final Farm Bill and that they are permanently funded. That means adopting Food Stamp provisions on the standard deduction, childcare expenses, and minimum monthly benefit; and adopting provisions on asset limits and unemployed adults.

Unfortunately, even these modest changes are now facing cuts in the final negotiations even though Congress has refused to reform the antiquated commodity payment system that pays out billions of dollars each year, to already-rich farms. Money spent should work for the benefit of those who need help, not those who have wealth. Reform of commodity payments would not only change this out-of-date and unfair system, it would also free up much-needed revenue to help pay for improvements in nutrition and rural development programs. Hungry people and rural communities should not have to sacrifice vital assistance to further subsidize the rich.

As food prices rise and the economy is in a downturn, failure to strengthen the Farm Bill will make it even harder for people living in hunger in New Mexico to get the food they need to live productive, healthy lives.
Sherlock is the co-group leader for RESULTS-Santa Fe.
Copyright © 2008 by the New Mexico Editorial Forum

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