Monday, May 27, 2024

2023 Farm Bill: An opportunity to strengthen SNAP

by Sophie Albert
| September 20, 2023 12:00 AM

The Farm Bill is a pivotal piece of legislation with a direct impact on agriculture, food security, and nutrition. Renewed and rewritten every five years, it encompasses a wide range of programs, including farmers' crop insurance, conservation, commodities, and nutrition programs. As we approach the end of this month, the current Farm Bill is set to expire, posing a significant risk to millions of people facing food insecurity.

Federal nutrition programs supported by the Farm Bill include The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP), Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP), and the Gus Schumacher Nutrition Incentive Program (GusNIP). While TEFAP, CSFP, and GusNIP play crucial roles in supporting food access organizations like the North Valley Food Bank (NVFB), SNAP stands as the cornerstone of our nation's food security safety net.

Presently, SNAP benefits reach 42 million people nationwide, offering critical support to vulnerable populations, including the elderly, children, and rural community members. It also contributes significantly to local economies, injecting a total of $160 million into the state of Montana last year through SNAP funds spent at local grocery stores and farmers markets. Furthermore, SNAP is the most dignified approach to food assistance, enabling people to access their benefits through an Electronic Benefit Transfer system at local stores. Finally, SNAP supports the country’s economy during challenging times such as the Covid-19 pandemic when SNAP Emergency Allotments significantly increased retail sales for grocery stores, farmers and ranchers.

While the program, in its current form, is a lifeline for millions of Americans, this year's Farm Bill presents an opportunity not only to safeguard SNAP benefits but also to strengthen the program. For many of our customers at NVFB, SNAP benefits account for the majority of their monthly food budget due to the high cost of living in the Flathead Valley. Unfortunately, the average SNAP benefit amount is currently only $6 per person per day, often leaving families with insufficient resources before the month's end. Consequently, community members often resort to purchasing cheap, highly processed foods and turn to food pantries for fresh dairy, produce, and meat products.

The Closing the Meal Gap Act (H.R. 3037/S. 1336) offers a solution by increasing the monthly minimum benefit amounts, factoring in housing and medical costs when determining benefit levels, eliminating time limits for individuals struggling to find employment, and basing SNAP allotments on the Low-Cost Food Plan. These changes would ensure that more individuals and families have access to nutritious food options and can meet their dietary needs.

Furthermore, various provisions could further enhance SNAP by removing time limits, improving access for college students, eliminating the prohibition on using SNAP benefits to purchase hot food, and streamlining the enrollment process. This could involve simplifying the application process, reducing administrative hurdles such as phone interviews for community members residing in rural areas, and leveraging technology to expedite the process. Moreover, the current Farm Bill has the potential to ensure equitable access to food assistance by enhancing access for tribal communities, Puerto Rico, and U.S. Territories, eliminating barriers for immigrant communities, and lifting the ban on individuals with felony drug convictions.

At NVFB, we believe that access to healthy, nutritious food is a fundamental human right. The 2023 Farm Bill represents a unique opportunity to reshape the future of food security in the U.S. by enhancing SNAP. These efforts can help ensure that our neighbors do not have to make choices between paying for housing, utilities, or food, ultimately contributing to healthier and happier communities. Additionally, the Farm Bill provides an avenue to address climate change, invest in research, promote local and organic agriculture, and establish resilient, sustainable food and agricultural systems.

I encourage you to stay informed about the Farm Bill's progress, engage with your representatives in Congress, follow the advocacy efforts of the Montana Food Bank Network, and motivate your friends and family to get involved. The 2023 Farm Bill is a matter of concern for all of us, as it could significantly shape our food systems.

Sophie Albert, North Valley Food Bank