Understanding the Farm Bill and SNAP

Oct 18, 2018

Credit Elspeth Hay

Roughly every five years, the house and the senate work together to pass a new farm bill. The most recent farm bill expired on September 30th, but Congress still hasn’t negotiated a new version. Francie Randolph of the Truro Farmers Market and the non-profit Sustainable Cape says which bill passes could have big implications for Cape Cod consumers and farmers. That’s because roughly 75 cents of every dollar in the farm bill goes to SNAP and other nutrition incentive programs.

“Feeding people is at the heart of the farm bill and so SNAP is an enormous part of the farm bill and there are some big differences between the House and the Senate right now in what is going to be happening going forward,” Randolph said.  

The big difference between the house and Senate versions of the bill has to do with an employment requirement--to get SNAP, you would either have to have a job or be in an employment training program.

Francie explained that 1 in 11 households currently receiving benefits would lose eligibility. If the house version went through on the Cape, she said, that could be almost 1,000 people.

“It’s because of the work requirement. There’s also a requirement that if you were ever incarcerated you would not be eligible for SNAP,” Randolph said.

SNAP, or what used to be called Food Stamps, has been part of the farm bill since the late 1930s. The original idea was to use government money to buy big agricultural surpluses like wheat or corn and distribute them to a hungry public. More recently, though, some lawmakers have worked to connect the dots between feeding communities, improving health outcomes, and providing economic stimulus for local farmers.

“So really it was Gus Schumaker who was former MDAR commissioner, Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources, and then went on to be Clinton’s undersecretary of agriculture, who really kind of came up with this concept of a nutrition incentive,” Randolph said.

She added, “I think it was called Bonus Bucks in Boston. And what he decided that he could do is to enable people of low income through a SNAP card, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps, to arrive at a farmers’ market and to receive some kind of bonus to incentivize them to use their SNAP benefits with farmers.”

At some markets, you get an extra $10 in free tokens if you spend $10 in SNAP money. This doesn’t just benefit small farmers—it also makes healthy fruits and vegetables more affordable. The Orleans Farmers Market started accepting SNAP benefits and participating in the nutrition incentives back in 2010. Gretel Norgeot, who runs the market, says they started off with only a few SNAP recipients.

“So we had maybe 10 or 15 customers that participated in that. And now, I don’t even know, I think it’s 150 people a month you know, it’s a lot of people that we go through the Orleans Farmers Market in the summertime that do that,” Norgeot said.

Norgeot and Randolph started the Sustainable CAPE Farmers Market Coalition in 2014. The idea was to help other farmers markets on the Cape and Islands figure out how to start accepting SNAP and other nutrition incentives—it’s not rocket science, but it’s a lot easier with a template. The exact number of individuals receiving SNAP on the Cape and Islands varies year-to-year and season-to-season, but over the past decade in Barnstable County the number has ranged from 12,000 to 20,000.  The economic stimulus for farmers markets on the Cape has been big—in 2017, SNAP and other nutrition incentives put just over $26,000 into the pockets of local growers, that’s up six hundred and forty-three percent from 2015.

                                                             

“If we could move the legislation so that the SNAP benefits were encouraging fruit and vegetable consumption and encouraging that consumption through farmers markets we would not only be helping people on food stamps and helping local farmers we could help our long-term health and help our local economy. So it’s really a package deal that’s beyond a win-win,” Randolph said.

So often it feels impossible to create change—it’s inspiring to reflect on what these two women have managed to do with SNAP and farmers markets. Past farm bills have made it a priority to expand access to farmers markets for SNAP participants; whether the next bill continues this trend or moves in a different direction remains to be seen. 

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Here are links to more information:

This is a New York Times article on who may lose nutrition incentive benefits if the House version of the bill passes as is.

This has more information about SNAP at Farmers Markets.

This is regarding how much money goes to each section of the farm bill, from the 2014 legislation.

Learn more about the Sustainable Cape Farmers Market Coalition

Here's a link to Elspeth's blog post from an old local food report that she did on the birth of this program in 2012.