WASHINGTON, May 8, 2012- The House Agriculture Committee continued its subcommittee series of 2012 Farm Bill hearings today, focusing on specialty crop programs and the largest of Farm Bill titles, the nutrition programs. 

Chairman of the House Agriculture Committee's Subcommittee on Nutrition and Horticulture Rep. Jean Schmidt, R-Ohio, said the agricultural community is in a unique position with 37 programs running out of baseline funding and a public demand to spend less. She mentioned the House Budget Resolution reconciliation requirement that the Committee provide savings measures for the next decade. 

“We were instructed to find $33 billion in savings by the House Budget reconciliation instructions, and we are debating these recommendations on the House floor this week,” Schmidt said.

The House Agriculture Committee approved funding reductions to the Farm Bill Nutrition Title, specifically the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), to meet the reconciliation requirements with a party line, voice vote last month.  

Subcommittee Ranking Member Joe Baca, D-Calif. said the Agriculture Committee’s SNAP spending reduction “sets an unfortunate precedent.”

“Today’s hearing served as an important reminder of the need for a strong SNAP program,” Baca said. “As our witnesses made clear, SNAP continues to be one of the most efficient and effective government programs, and is a critical lifeline for the health and nutrition of 46 million plus Americans.”

Witnesses discussed the various nutrition programs under the subcommittee's jurisdiction, which accounts for nearly 80 percent of the entire farm bill spending. Participation in SNAP rose by nearly 77 percent, from 26 million in 2007 to more than 46 million individuals currently. The government spent $33 billion on SNAP in fiscal year 2007 and spending more than doubled to nearly $76 billion in fiscal year 2011.

"With soaring deficits and an unfathomable national debt, we must be mindful of this grave fiscal situation,” Schmidt said. “Investing wisely in specialty crops and ensuring that nutrition programs are being administered effectively is critical at this time."

Other nutrition programs within the subcommittee's jurisdiction that USDA administers are the Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP), the Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP), the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program (FFVP) and the Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program (SFMNP).

National Association of Farmers Market Nutrition Programs Executive Director Phil Blalock emphasized his support for SFMNP and the WIC Farmers Market Nutrition Program. 

“These are the only programs that provide direct benefits to small farmers and low income families with so little effort,” Blalock said. “Unlike a lot of government programs, neither is considered an entitlement program, a welfare program or even a subsidy to large corporate farmers.”

Center on Budget and Policy Priorities Food Assistance Policy Vice President Stacy Dean defended SNAP funding before the subcommittee and said the unfavorable economy dramatically increased the number of households eligible for SNAP. 

“Some critics have used growth to criticize the program,” she said. “The economy is SNAP’s reason for growth. The Congressional Budget Office projects that SNAP spending will shrink in the years ahead.”

Blalack also lobbied for maintaining SNAP benefits, emphasizing the increasing demand on food banks. 

“Over the last four years, demand has increased 30 to 40 percent on the food bank system,” he said. “Additional decreases in SNAP benefits to recipients would just be paramount in not being able to feed people.”

Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., asked about abuse of the system, noting that “we on the Agriculture Committee have to contend with a lot of newspaper reports on fraud and abuse in SNAP.”

The witnesses acknowledged that abuse does occur, although at record-low levels, and that efforts should be taken to punish those abusing the food stamp system.

Schacht Family Farm and Market owner Lisa Schacht, on behalf of Ohio Produce Growers and Marketers Association, said she believes reforms to SNAP are needed based from her business observations.

“Funding for SNAP, WIC and Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program needs to be more directed to management of benefits,” she said.  “Without extensive education about practical use of benefits, the actual return on taxpayers’ investment is crippled.”

In addition to the nutrition programs, a panel of witnesses from the specialty crop community discussed the programs under Title X of the 2008 Farm Bill, which include the Specialty Crop Block Grant Program, Pest and Disease Prevention and the National Clean Plant Network.

Riverfront Packing Company CEO Dan Richey, on behalf of the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association, said the specialty crop research initiative is vital to maintain for specialty crop growers, because “we desperately need research funding to combat diseases and pests.”
Ranking Member Baca said the Agriculture Committee should “protect the progress made in specialty crop programs in the 2008 Farm Bill.”

“Today’s hearing provided ample evidence that our current specialty crop support initiatives work well, and are vital to the continued strength of America’s agriculture economy,” Baca said.   

Rep. James McGovern, D-Mass, attended the hearing and focused his attention on SNAP while questioning the specialty crops panel. 

“Here’s the irony, we’re talking about building an infrastructure for healthy food for people, but this committee cut $33 billion in SNAP programs, which is the very program that would allow people to take advantage of these foods,” he said. 

However, the panelists made clear that the specialty crop programs are distinct from federal nutrition welfare programs.

“What we’re talking about today is a smaller portion,” Richey said. “We are not a subsidy and there are no overall benefits that we receive in the specialty crop alliance. We’re looking for support in these programs that are a smaller part of farm bill.”


For more news, go to www.agri-pulse.com