Why Providence Cares About the Farm Bill

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Nearly 30% of Providence residents depend on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to buy their groceries. As Congress debates the Farm Bill, Rhode Island food advocates call for more money for SNAP, small farms and conservation programs. Millions of dollars could be available for those programs, say both national liberal and conservative organizations, if Congress reforms Farm Bill payments to insurance companies and millionaire farmers.

Every five years, Congress sets food policy through the Farm Bill. Strong bipartisan support is usually assured by uniting urban and rural members of Congress with a combination of SNAP benefits (commonly called food stamps) and farm subsidies. That alliance recently extended the 2018 Farm Bill, with no major changes, until September 2024. But Congress’ passage of legislation to freeze domestic spending means any spending increases in the massive $146 billion/year Farm Bill will force cuts elsewhere. And the Congressional Research Service projects 84 percent of the Farm Bill will be spent on SNAP and much smaller nutrition programs, including food assistance on Indian reservations and US territories.

Philip Bliss of Providence says his monthly SNAP benefit of $220 covers about two weeks of food. “It keeps us above water, “ says Bliss, a single person whose income consists of disability (SSRI) payments, adding “Nowadays with food prices, that $220 doesn’t last.” SNAP benefits vary according to family size, income and other factors.  They can be used for food, but not paper products, pet food, or items containing alcohol or tobacco.

A Washington Park resident who asked that her name not be used, receives a SNAP benefit of $950/month, but she is a single mother fleeing domestic abuse with seven children. She recently visited the Reservoir Avenue office of the Department of Human Services (DHS) seeking emergency food because her food spoiled when her refrigerator broke. After filing the required paperwork, she was told she would get an answer in 10 days. Because many food pantries only allow people to come once a month, her options are limited when her benefits run out at the end of the month. “So you have to go steal,” she says matter of factly, “because you need to feed your kids.”

Casey, a Providence SNAP recipient who asked that her last name not be used, contends, “Food should be free. Water should be free. God gave us these things.”  Her SNAP benefit also pays for about two weeks of food, she says. Because she is homeless and living in a hotel, she adds, she must buy microwavable food, but receives no extra SNAP benefits to pay for it.

52,000 Providence residents receive monthly SNAP benefits.  Statewide, 143,225 Rhode Islanders, or about 15 percent of the population, rely on SNAP, according to the University of Rhode Island Feinstein Center for a Hunger Free America, a research and education institute. A single person earning $26,976/year qualifies for the minimum benefit of $23/month. Someone earning the minimum wage, working 40 hours a week and supporting a family of three receives $444/month, according to Hunger Center director Kathleen Gorman.  In Rhode Island, the average SNAP recipient is a family of 1.6 people, and they get $195/month in SNAP benefits.  The program costs the federal government about $330 million/year in Rhode Island.

SNAP Benefits are delivered by Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT)

The Hunger Center, Providence based Farm Fresh Rhode Island and the non-profit Rhode Island Food Policy Council support expanding SNAP. All three are part of a national coalition that wants to increase benefits, plus eliminate the ban on benefits for legal immigrants who have been in the country less than five years, permit the purchase of hot prepared meals and expand the program to Puerto Rico.

But Gorman says the best hope may be for SNAP to survive unchanged. “Republicans are committed to using SNAP as a scapegoat,” she warns, pointing to their successful effort to reduce some benefits as part of the May 2023 debt limit extension agreement.

“I don’t think it’s right that we borrow money from China to pay somebody that has no dependents, able bodied, to sit on a couch,” said then House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA).  As part of the May 2023 debt deal, Congress barred adults under the age of 55 with no dependents from receiving SNAP after three months unless they are disabled, working 20 hours a week or in a job training program.

As a result, this year as many as 1000 Providence residents aged 50-54 will be ineligible for SNAP once they receive three months of benefits, estimates the non-partisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. A US Department of Agriculture (USDA) study of similar rules passed by individual states, however, showed no evidence that they increased employment or income after a year. Other conditions, such as day care responsibilities, health problems and transportation likely cause single adults to not work. The issue, however, appears to be settled and work requirements are unlikely to change further, predicts Ben Goldey, communications director for the House Committee on Agriculture.

The Rhode Island Food Policy Council  has two Farm Bill priorities to increase fruit and vegetable consumption and support local farms. The Council’s Network  Director Nessa Richman wants additional funds for the Gus Schumacher Nutrition Assistance Program that last year provided $125,000 to allow Rhode Island SNAP recipients to pay half price at many farmers markets, including all those in Providence.  Richman also wants to make a COVID era program, the Local Food Purchase Assistance Cooperative Agreement (LFPA), permanent in the Farm Bill. The three year, $1.7 million program allows Rhode Island food pantries to purchase up to $10,000/year in fresh produce from local farms.

To find the funds to pay for programs like those suggested by Gorman and Richman, Geoff Horsfield, government affairs manager for the Washington based Environmental Working Group (EWG), suggests reducing the cost of the second and third largest parts of the farm bill. “If you want to save money, don’t attack poor people who need food, you can look at the rich,” he says.

Last year, the federal government’s General Accounting Office (GAO) found that millions of dollars could be saved from the $10 billion/year crop insurance program. The $3.7 billion that the Farm Bill pays insurance companies to administer the program could be reduced, the GAO suggested, and premiums for high income farmers could be increased. Currently the USDA pays 62 percent of crop insurance premiums for all farmers.

House Committee on Agriculture Committee Chairman Glenn Thompson (R-PA), a former dairy farmer, however, is not impressed, saying the GAO report “isn’t worth the paper it was printed on.”

Last February, an Environmental Working Group analysis also called for reforming the third largest Farm Bill provision, $7 billion/year in commodity crop subsidies, by capping subsidy payments to high income farms. Poor people face strict income and asset tests to qualify for SNAP benefits, EWG reasons, why shouldn’t farmers be required to fall below certain income levels to qualify for crop subsidies?

A spokesman for Chairman Thompson, however, says he generally believes all farms should be eligible for subsidies, regardless of   And so, like much of America, waiting to see what happens to the Farm Bill, Providence SNAP recipients wait, and wait, and…

Steven Stycos, a former Cranston City Councilman, manages Westbay Farm in Warwick with the help of dedicated volunteers. The farm grows vegetables for food pantries.