Don’t mess with SNAP

In the 1980s, my brother, sister, and I participated in a federal nutrition program.  My parents scrambled to continue to farm.  Our bank had failed.  The family was in crisis.  I assumed I’d have to sell my horse and mule and move with my family to some far-off city.  Fortunately for my family, the Grapes of Wrath-type scenarios didn’t happen.

For numerous reasons, many of them stemming from farm bill policies, my family’s farm survived the 1980s farm crisis. Today, my brother and sister-in-law are farming with my parents on the farm where I grew up.  My husband and I own and operate our own farm.

One of the things that made a real difference for my family during the 1980s farm crisis was free school lunch.  Over the few years we participated, those free lunches freed up a couple thousand dollars.  My family spent that money on non-food necessities and much of it at local stores.

I’ll always remember our superintendent who encouraged families to sign up for free lunch. He said participate—it helps your family and also benefits the school.  His reasoning was something about a reimbursement formula. A lot of families from my hometown applied and used the program because we were all told it was the right thing to do. It was, and it still is.

Fast forward to 2018.  President Trump’s budget includes a radical proposal to remake the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), what used to be known as the food stamp program.  Termed “America’s Harvest Box,” the program would cut roughly half of SNAP dollars and replace them with a box of shelf-stable foods delivered to individuals and families participating in SNAP.  Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue is now vigorously defending this proposal.

The Harvest Box contrasts the innovations in the SNAP program from the 2014 farm bill designed to incentivize eating more fruits and vegetables.  Our farm participates in Iowa’s Double Up Food Bucks to encourage SNAP participants to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables from local farmers.  The “Harvest Box” would remove the ability of SNAP beneficiaries to choose. They lose the opportunity to select healthier foods, purchase from farmers and retailers in their local community, and decide when and where to use the benefit as they need.  In lieu of the flexibility, SNAP families and individuals would see those opportunities slashed and replaced by a box of “shelf-stable milk, juice, grains, ready-eat cereals, pasta, peanut butter, beans, canned meat, poultry or fish, and canned fruits and vegetables”.

Neil Hamilton, director of the Agricultural Law Center, was a guest earlier this week on Iowa Public Radio’s River to River.  The hour-long program explored the history of SNAP and implications of implementing America’s Harvest Box.  Neil argued this proposed change to SNAP looks like a solution in search of a problem.

Kathie Obradovich devoted her political column in Monday’s Des Moines Register to the Harvest Box.  She claimed the proposal, if implemented, would have a spiraling downward effect on Iowa’s economy. Food prices would rise, Iowa retail sales would drop, and federal farm programs on which Iowa farmers depend would lose support.

To be fair, some of her criticism was sardonic. She said, “Everything I’ve read suggests Congress has as much interest in the Harvest Box as the average 5-year-old has in canned spinach.”

However, by mid-week, Politico’s Morning Ag reported that Secretary Perdue “has a message for all the ‘America’s Harvest Box’ haters: We’re serious. So serious that Perdue tells POLITICO that House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway is open to considering a small-scale pilot of the program in the 2018 farm bill.”

As the politics of the policy development around the Harvest Box play out, there’s a very important message farmers need be sending to SNAP participants.

Thank you for using SNAP to help your family, for spending those benefits in your communities, and for responding to our commodity marketing campaigns by purchasing the food we raise such as our beef, milk, pork, poultry, produce, and grains.

For over half a century political forces interested in making sure all Americans have enough to eat and political forces interested in making sure American farmers are economically able to grow that food have joined forces in federal farm policy.  These proposed changes to SNAP threaten a coalition of urban and rural lawmakers working together to insure both goals.

My participation in a federal nutrition program is more the norm than the exception.  They are well-directed, efficient, good for families and local communities, and an excellent tool for helping families navigate a crisis like mine did.  Federal nutrition programs also provide effective and efficient services to those with chronic needs like the disabled and elderly.  America’s Harvest Box seems to fall short on every measure of good government.  But maybe that’s the real point of the proposal: to undermine the effectiveness of a good government program.

As a farmer, when the going gets tough, I have depended on government programs. They’ve helped me throughout my entire life, from free school lunches as a farm boy in the 1980s to the Livestock Forage Program (LFP) during the Iowa drought last summer.  As a farmer, I am well served standing with fellow Americans using SNAP. As a farmer, I must not stay silent while political forces redesign one of the most popular and efficient government programs to become less effective and less beneficial to the people it is supposed to serve.

 

What We Expect in 2018

As we look forward to 2018, there are many changes, concerns, and areas of uncertainty with potential effects on the food and agricultural industries and rural America.  I have listed below a few of the key topics and issues I think we will hear about frequently in the coming year.

  • Water Quality/Environmental Issues – Much attention is going to be paid to the Iowa Legislature when it opens its session in January on the issue of water quality within the state. There appears to be growing recognition that the state needs to do something more to work to address concerns throughout the state, but consensus on how to move forward at the state level is still lacking (bills in both the House and Senate failed to move forward in 2017).  Other states in the Midwest are far ahead of Iowa with various voluntary and mandatory programs (check out Minnesota and Ohio as examples), it’s time for the state to step up and focus on developing comprehensive and coordinated plans, with sufficient funding for implementation, to improve water quality within the state and address concerns related to agricultural run-off.  The Des Moines Register Editorial Board recently weighed in on this issue and Iowa Public Radio did a live River to River discussion dedicated to water quality in October 2017. I suspect you will see much more in the media on this topic in the coming days and months, along with other environmental concerns including climate change, chemical drift and damage (particularly dicamba), and organic regulations. On our radar: watch for the upcoming “Our Water” series from the Agricultural Law Center.
  • Tax Reform Implications – While the debate continues as to who will benefit from the Tax Reform Bill passed and signed at the end of 2017, there is no doubt that it’s going to be keeping many accountants and lawyers busy over the coming year. The Estate Tax was one of many key provisions of interest to the agricultural community, but there are others that may impact decisions being made related to filing your 2017 taxes as well.  The ISU Center for Agricultural Law & Taxation has a comprehensive summary of the bill, including possible impacts on the agricultural industry.  One particular area of concern I have: the effect on charitable organizations. Ideally, contributions will remain stable to charitable organizations in 2018, despite many Americans no longer being able to deduct charitable contributions due to the higher standard deduction.  I have concerns for all charitable institutions in this area, but particularly those in rural communities.  Rural charitable organizations already face struggles to obtain funding, and the needs of rural communities are not decreasing (see this recent article from The Hill on Rural Poverty and the 2017 USDA Summary of the annual Rural America at a Glance report).
  • Trade – While USDA touted agricultural trade wins in an end of year press release, all eyes are still on the continuing NAFTA negotiations as we move into 2018. Despite concerns that the current Administration was ready to withdraw from the agreement in 2017, talks have continued and are scheduled into 2018. In large part, the agricultural industry is supportive of NAFTA, as Canada and Mexico purchase about 30% of our agricultural exports each year. However, there are divides within agriculture and NAFTA remains a deeply divisive issue both within agricultural and within other industries, such as manufacturing, that believe NAFTA has caused more harm than good.  Manufacturing, agriculture and other areas share something in common other than being key NAFTA topics: they are also vital to our rural communities.  Predictions are dire as to what may happen to the farm economy should the US withdraw from NAFTA, impacting not just those directly involved in the production industry, but their communities as well.  As we look ahead to 2018, rural communities may see some of the most direct impacts should the United States withdraw from NAFTA.
  • Food Waste – Food waste continues to be a topic of interest, particularly when it comes to issues surrounding the environment and food security. While there has been increased attention to the food waste problem, federal legislation has stalled several times and much more needs to be done.  While 2018 could be a big year for food waste legislation, especially if it gets brought into the Farm Bill, state and local initiatives could be the key to seeing a real impact on this issue.  Programs to support food donation, educate consumers, and increase community food recycling/composting areas that need additional support and resources.  Research into how to manage and dispose of food waste needs to continue, and there needs to be increased awareness of how individual consumer choices related to food waste have a significant cumulative effect. Just a few examples of organizations locally working to address this issue include the Iowa Waste Reduction Center, which has been working in this area locally, partnering with rural communities and coordinating the Midwest Food Recovery Summit in 2017. For several years, Drake University has partnered with Sodexo and many local organizations to rescue food from campus that would otherwise go in the trash to get it to those who can use it through the NextCourse Food Recovery program (initiated by Law School Professor Ellen Yee and coordinated by undergraduate students and other partners). In the Des Moines community, Eat Greater Des Moines helped develop the ChowBank app, working to connect business and foodservice entities with leftover food to social service entities helping feed people in need. In the coming year, I hope to help increase education regarding legal issues and protections related to food donation, and work with partners to increase awareness and education.
  • Infrastructure – Agriculture requires a strong infrastructure system to succeed, and rural communities in particular are struggling to replace aging roads, bridges and other infrastructure systems. Digital infrastructure in rural areas remains a pressing need, as many rural communities continue to have no access to reliable broadband service.  Broadband service is more than just a personal luxury, for businesses and business development in rural areas, it is a necessary component for growth, competition, and success.  This is a topic receiving federal attention, the House Agricultural Committee held a hearing in 2017 focused on “The State of Infrastructure in Rural America”, USDA’s Rural Development initiatives include some support for both physical and digital infrastructure, and infrastructure is slated as a priority for 2018 by the Administration.  As (if) infrastructure legislation does move forward in the coming year, my hope is that rural areas receive particular focus and can remain competitive for funding opportunities.
  • Opioid Epidemic – The nationwide opioid epidemic is hitting communities across the country hard, but rural communities face additional challenges in the fight to combat the continuing increase in opioid abuse. Access to treatment facilities, medical treatment, and mental health resources are a significant issues, as are lack of transportation options and difficulties addressing some of the root causes of abuse (including increased poverty, food security, and unemployment in rural areas). USDA has been leading a combined effort to address the epidemic at the federal level, and just recently, the American Farm Bureau Federation and the National Farmers Union announced a partnership and campaign to raise awareness of the impact of the opioid epidemic on rural communities.  With a goal of providing easy access to information and resources, this campaign highlights the fact that this is not just an individual or family issue, but one that impacts communities as a whole.  If we are to succeed in reducing opioid abuse, communities need to come together as a whole and take steps to provide support and resources and think long-term regarding underlying issues.  Agricultural businesses and rural communities are directly affected by this epidemic, such as when it comes to finding and keeping qualified employees and maintain a safe workplace.  There is no one easy answer to this epidemic, and it shows no sign of abating in the near future.  Together, with a multi-faceted and long term approach, rural (and urban) communities can work to provide support and combat opioid abuse and addiction, and hopefully, provide long-term support for others in the community as well working to combat substance abuse and other mental health challenges.
  • Food Labeling – Genetically engineered food labels will be in the news again in 2018, as USDA is required to release the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure standard by mid-year. After contentious debate, state laws, litigation, and a lot of money being spent on both sides of the issue, federal legislation was passed and enacted in June 2016 giving USDA two years to develop the disclosure standard and determine what is the definition of “bioengineered” when it comes to food ingredients, what the threshold for disclosure is, and how or if disclosure must occur (among other actions). I expect this is going to spark much debate and potentially litigation no matter what the final regulations look like, but the real question remains as to if there will be any long term effect on consumer decisions and attitudes.  Many companies have maintained the disclosure statements added to labels in response to Vermont’s labeling law (no longer in effect as it was preempted by the federal law), and some companies have made changes to product ingredients to shift away from using genetically engineered crops and products.  Organic food standards are also something to watch in 2018, and may receive renewed consumer interest when the bioengineered regulations are released.  I think that 2018 will continue to see consumer demand as an increasing power when it comes to decisions made by food companies, with a trickledown effect to agricultural producers and agricultural companies.  This debate also highlights the need for increased consumer education regarding food and agricultural production, as well as the continued debate over nutrition and health in our food system.
  • Food safety – A continuing area of concern, both domestically and internationally. The FDA continues to roll out Food Safety Modernization Act regulations and being enforcement, requiring much education for both the industry and new inspectors. Meanwhile, the agency remains underfunded.  A recent GAO report emphasized the need for a comprehensive strategy to address what they called a “fragmented” federal food safety system.  Food safety outbreaks continue to be a concern, including a current E.coli outbreak in the U.S. and Canada that is thought to be tied to romaine lettuce but for which there is little information available. Internationally, concerns remain over foreign inspections and food safety standards for imported foods. The previous administration was increasing enforcement at the corporate level, but given the current regulatory climate I suspect that will not remain true.  Food safety outbreaks, recalls, FSMA implementation, and numerous other related issues will remain hot topics in 2018.
  • Farm Bill – No “what’s ahead in 2018” list can be complete without a mention of the Farm Bill. 2018 is slated to be the year for passage of the next Farm Bill, and while discussions and hearings have been going on for months, much uncertainty remains as to what the next Farm Bill will look like.  Budget cuts remain a concern when it comes to many programs, and there are fears that environmental, new/minority farmer, and specialty crop programs may see cuts and changes, and I think it likely we will see less emphasis on conservation and more programs responsive to the current challenges in the farm economy. Crop insurance will also be a focus, and as always, the debate as to whether supplemental nutrition programs should be part of this bill will continue.  The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (often referred to as food stamps) has come under renewed fire this past year. I think it possible significant changes could be seen in 2018, particularly with more authority and administrative power passed on to individual states.  However, the contentious atmosphere in Congress at the moment, combined with what seems to be a general consensus that a Farm Bill needs to be passed this year, may mean that in large part we see little change to the current Bill in order for there to be one that gets enough support to pass.