Farm (& Food) Bill Update

Now that both the Senate and House have passed their versions of the farm bill, members from both House and Senate Agricultural committees are working as a conference committee to reconcile the differences between the two bills.  The proposed legislative package that the conference committee comes up with will then come to the floors of both the House and Senate for a final vote.  If the package passes, it will then go to President Bush for a signature or a veto.

A key issue that we have been following is funding for the Community Food Projects (CFP) Competitive Grants program. CFP has been funding innovative grassroots efforts (over 240 of them) to promote Community Food Security and local food systems since 1996 to the tune of $5 million per year.  In the Senate version, the CFP program is slated to receive $10 million a year in mandatory funding, which is much better than the House version of $30 million a year but in discretionary funding (which means we would have to fight every year for it to receive any funding). So we want to encourage the conference committee members to go with the Senate version on this issue.

Another issue we have been following is Geographic preference language that would remove restrictions that keep school districts and institutions from using preferences for locally grown food when buying food for their meal programs.  Fortunately, geographic preference language is strong in both the House and Senate bills going into the conference committee process.

We have also been following efforts to strengthen the Nutrition Title of the Farm bill that includes positive efforts to expand and reform Food Stamps and other nutrition programs.  The following four paragraphs come from a January 2, 2008 action alert from FRAC (Food Research and Action Center):

Procedural Outlook:  Leaders of the House and Senate Agriculture Committees reportedly met in late December to establish a framework and timetable for ironing out differences between the House and Senate versions of the Farm Bill that passed in July and December, respectively.  Although conferees have not yet been formally appointed, informal negotiations are expected to proceed, with leaders aiming to complete conference negotiations by February 1st.  See “Federal farm bill passes in Senate,” by Erik Posz, Redwood Gazette, 12/27/07.

House and Senate leaders also are expected to play significant roles in decisions about the financing and priorities in the Farm Bill package.  And members of Congress who are not on the Conference Committee also still can influence the direction of the package and should be asked to weigh in on behalf of nutrition title priorities with their leaders and Conference Committee Members. 

What’s at Stake:  The Senate version of the Farm Bill that passed in December and the one that passed the House in July each contain important new investments in the Food Stamp Program and TEFAP.  These include, among other changes:  increasing and then indexing both the Food Stamp Program $10 minimum monthly benefit and the standard deductions for households of three or fewer; lifting the cap on the child care deduction; raising food stamp household asset limits and then indexing them; and boosting TEFAP commodities purchases.   For details of the House and Senate versions of the Farm Bill, go to agriculture.house.gov and agriculture.senate.gov, respectively (Senate version to be posted). 

The House-passed Farm Bill is preferable with regard to the duration of Food Stamp Program and The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) improvements—there are permanent law changes under the House bill, but only five-year changes that would theoretically sunset under the Senate version unless renewed (and paid for) at the end of the five years. The House provisions on the $10 minimum monthly benefit, standard deduction and TEFAP also are preferable to the Senate bill:  the minimum benefit boost would take effect earlier (FY 2008 rather than FY 2009); the standard deduction raise would be more significant ($145 rather than $140); and the TEFAP commodity purchases increase would be indexed for inflation. Improvements to food stamp asset rules, however, are more significant under the Senate bill (with asset limits increased from $2,000 to $3,500, and $3,000 to $4,500, before indexing). Advocacy to secure the best provisions on each key point from each bill and to finance these investments for ten years  is critically important for the potential gains to be realized for hungry families.
Finally, there were many other efforts we (the Community Food Bank) did not follow as closely that were aimed and larger reforms of the Farm bill that did not do so well:

Dorgan and Grassley’s amendment to limit commodity payments and redirect funds to nutrition, rural development and conservation failed. Its main opponents were southern senators. Due to a procedural technicality that required the amendment to pass with 60, not 50, votes, it didn’t pass with 56 votes. Ugh.
Klobuchar’s amendment to limit commodity payments to those with an adjusted gross income under $750,000 failed
Tester’s amendment against unfair livestock competition failed
Brown’s amendment to cut crop insurance subsidies failed
Lugar and Lautenberg’s amendment to phase out commodities altogether and strengthen other areas, including the nutrition title, failed.

Farm Bill Timing

*Congress has scheduled votes for the two weeks of Jan. 11th and the 18th, so the farm bill conference committee could meet during those weeks, after having worked casually on the farm bill over their break. Chairman Harkin has said he hopes to finish conference by the end of January.

*Veto threats have been issued by the Bush administration against both the House and Senate Farm bills. It’s not clear whether this threat is only intended to pressure the conference committee.

Message:  Even though, as far as we know, no Congressional members from Arizona will be part of the conference committee, you are still encouraged to contact your Senators and Representative to urge them to weigh in on the process.  You can encourage them to voice support for mandatory funding of $10 million a year for the Community Food Projects Competitive Grants program, and big increases in Food Stamp program benefits (including the minimum monthly benefit and the standard deduction).

If you have any questions, please contact Kitty Ufford-Chase at the Food Bank.  She can be reached by phone at 622-0525, x251, or email: kitty@communityfoodbank.org.