SNAP benefits cut, but could double in value at farmers markets
On Friday, Feb. 7, President Barack Obama signed the 2014 Farm Bill, which includes new programs to benefit local, sustainable agriculture while it cuts Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program spending and continues payments to commodities farmers.
John Piotti, executive director of Maine Farmland Trust, said he has mixed feelings about the bill. "On the plus side, this farm bill has more of a focus on 'local food' than ever before," he said. "[It includes] a combination of grant funds and research funds that could help the type of farms we have here in Maine — smaller farms, more diversified farms, and fewer farms that grow major commodity crops that receive federal subsidies."
The bill includes $150 million in funding for the Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program, $55 million for the National Organic Certification Cost Share Program and $63 million for the Value Added Producer Grant Program. It also offers diversified crop insurance so whole farms, not just single crops, can be insured.
But Piotti is disappointed with the bill because of how it dealt with the subsidies paid to major commodity producers. "The existing system is seriously flawed, but I doubt the new system of subsidized crop insurance will be any better," he said.
Congresswoman Chellie Pingree introduced the Local Farms and Jobs Act, which included many of the provisions promoting local agriculture and sustainable farming that ended up in the Farm Bill. She ultimately voted against the Farm Bill though, "because of cuts to the SNAP program (food stamps), provisions that allow payments to flow to wealthy farmers who are already making close to a $1 million a year, and a crop insurance program that subsidizes farms even when they are making large profits," according to a press release sent from her office.
While the Farm Bill eliminates the direct payment subsidies program, three new programs have been added in its place: the Agriculture Risk Coverage (ARC) program, the Price-Loss Coverage (PLC) program, and the Supplementary Coverage Option (SCO). Agricultural policy analyst Vincent Smith of the University of Montana wrote, "the ARC and SCO programs would essentially guarantee that farmers’ revenues never fall below 86-percent of what they earned in previous years, when crop prices were at historical highs."
Through a change in requirements that couple SNAP eligibility with the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program assistance in the bill, the available LIHEAP funds would be expended on fewer households, meaning fewer families will be eligible for SNAP through the program. This is expected to lead to a drop of $8 million paid out in SNAP benefits over the next decade.
One program called Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentives does have the potential to channel money to local farmers while putting healthy food on the tables of low income families who receive SNAP benefits.
Oran Hesterman, president of the Fair Food Network, which coordinated a double-dollar incentive program for SNAP beneficiaries who buy local produce at farmers markets in Detroit, Mich, has been advocating for allocating federal funds through the Farm Bill to expand the program nationally. Doing so "would be a game changer," he said in his keynote speech at the Slow Money Maine conference in Belfast Nov. 7, 2013. "That’s not just a solution; it is actually a redesign of the system that solves a lot of issues at the same time," he said.
At the Belfast farmers market Friday, Feb. 7, Billi Barker of Enchanted Kitchen at Firefly Farm said of the SNAP incentives in the bill, "I think it's awesome. Good food is a right, not a privilege."
Caitlin Hunter of Appleton Creamery agreed. "It makes exactly the kind of food that people need available to SNAP beneficiaries," she said. "I'm glad they're finally making it easier for farmers markets to accept EBT. For a long time we were shut out because the technology wasn't available."
EBT is the system which distributes SNAP benefits through debit cards.
Anne Segesse, of the Belfast Farmers Market, said their EBT system, which also allows for credit and debit card payments, went live June 21, 2013. "Approximately 37 people used it for a total of 127 transactions between June and January, totaling $5,424 in sales over that time period," she said. "That tells us there were a lot of repeat customers, so people are shopping for their groceries regularly at the market."
Segesse said the market offered an 1:4 incentive through a grant from Maine Farmland Trust, so for every $4 in SNAP benefits spent at the market, the customer would receive a credit for one dollar's value to be used at a future visit. "Matching dollar programs like this go a long way toward allowing these neighbors the same opportunity for the healthy, filling meals we all deserve," she said.
"I think the people using EBT here now have already bought into the idea that this is a place to get good local food," said Adrienne Lee of New Beat Farm at the farmers market. "But to pull more people into the market, having something like the double-dollars program would help."
However, Colleen Hanlon-Smith, executive director of Maine Farmers Market Federation says the new nutrition incentive program may not actually end up funding double voucher programs at farmers markets. "It is potentially a really exciting addition," she said, "but we need to keep a close eye as this goes to rule making to ensure this funding benefits local farmers and marketing outlets."
Public health lawyer Michele Simon writes at the website Eat Drink Politics that the open-ended language in the nutrition incentives portion of the farm bill does not explicitly favor local or American produce, limit eligibility for funding to farmers markets or specify an amount for the incentives, so any produce, even "sugary canned peaches," or "apples imported from China" could be incentivized; gas stations or Walmart could receive grants; and the incentives offered could be much less than double value. Simon also notes that applicants for grants must provide a fifty-percent match for funding, which could exclude some farmers markets and nonprofits.
It remains to be seen whether the 2014 Farm Bill will, as Sen. Debbie Stabenow said at the signing ceremony, take "a critical step towards changing the paradigm of agriculture." Sagesse says she thinks the effects of the bill on local farmers markets will be seen in the 2015 season.