WASHINGTON, Aug. 6, 2017 - The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program received a lot of support at a farm bill listening session held in Modesto, Calif., Saturday, as hunger advocates and academics from the state’s Central Valley urged House lawmakers to protect and even expand the program to benefit families, food banks, farmers markets and California fruit and vegetable growers.

Five House lawmakers, including House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas, heard from dozens of witnesses representing the diverse agricultural economy of California. “I don’t know if there’s anything you don’t grow out here.” Conaway said at the start of the session.

California Republicans Jeff Denham, David Valadao, Doug LaMalfa also attended the session, along with Democrat Dwight Evans of Pennsylvania. All but Valadao are also members of the Ag Committee. Another listening session is scheduled for the end of the month in Illinois, and on Thursday of this week Democratic Rep. Jimmy Panetta will host a session in Salinas with Democrats Collin Peterson of Minnesota, the committee's ranking member, and Representative Jim Costa, also of California.

Virtually all the speakers at Modesto Junior College sought more funding for programs or pressed for solutions in areas critical to the farm economy, such as trade, conservation and immigration.

“Not many of the presenters this morning asked for less money,” Conaway said at the conclusion of the three-hour session, saying he and the rest of the members of his committee would “pray diligently for the wisdom of Solomon” as they seek to ready a farm bill for House consideration late this year or early in 2018, as he has previously pledged.

“I urge you to support the SNAP program and expand on it – specifically through incentive programs,” Lupe Lopez, who owns six grocery stores in the San Francisco Bay area, told the lawmakers. Lopez brought props to demonstrate how a new program called the Double Up Food Bucks program works, allowing customers who buy California produce to double the value of their SNAP benefits.

Denise Hunt, a registered nurse and representative on the Stanislaus County Children and Families Commission, cited data showing high rates of children in poverty on the San Joaquin Valley. A recent report from the University of California-Davis Center for Regional Change said that while the Valley “includes the top agricultural producing counties in California, almost 400,000 of the region’s children live in poverty and seven of the 10 counties with the highest child poverty rates in the state are in the Valley.”

“This is what we face in one of the leading agricultural regions in our country and the world,” Hunt said. “Don’t decrease SNAP or school nutrition; don’t even consider moving to block grant funding for nutrition programs. Please take the opportunity your positions afford you to keep our children from going hungry.”

“We can’t possibly make up at the food bank what’s going to be lost with any cuts to SNAP,” said Andy Souza, CEO of the Community Food Bank, which provides about 40 million pounds of food annually –including about 20 million pounds of fresh produce – to more than 200 agencies in Fresno, Madera, Kings, Kern and Tulare counties.

“Don’t turn (SNAP) into a block grant program,” said Eli Zigas, food and agriculture policy director at SPUR, the San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association, which helped launch the double-bucks program. He also urged the lawmakers to expand funding for the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive Program, or FINI, operated by the National Intitute of Food and Agriculture. 

SNAP, while a popular subject, was of course not the only issue on the minds of speakers, whose interests reflected California’s diverse agricultural economy. Dairy producers, for instance, urged the congressmen to fix the dairy Margin Protection Program, which has suffered from low participation rates.

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Joseph Augusto, president of the California Dairy Campaign, said the “test results are in (on the MPP) and they’re not good for dairy farmers.” He stressed that large dairy operations, not just small ones, need assistance.

And Rob Vandenheuvel, vice president of industry and member relations at California Dairies Inc., said MPP “was sold as a move away from … picking winners and losers,” but that policymakers need to resist the temptation to only take care of smaller farms. “We’ve got to look at policies that apply to everybody,” he said.

Tony Toso, second vice president of the California Farm Bureau Federation, spoke up in favor of the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and ELAP, an emergency assistance program to aid livestock producers that will be important “to help us stave off disaster” in the wake of the Detwiler Fire in Mariposa County, which has burned more than 80,000 acres.

Toso and Kelly Covello, president of the Almond Alliance of California, emphasized the importance of continued EQIP funding, which can be used to cover equipment in order to meet strict California air quality requirements.

Another almond advocate, Alicia Rockwell of Blue Diamond Growers, sought increased Market Access Program (MAP) funding “in light of our stalled trade policy.” The European Union, she said, is spending more on wine promotion alone than the U.S. is spending on the MAP program.

Other speakers also spoke about the importance of trade to the ag economy, noting variously that the U.S. ag sector enjoys a trade surplus and that despite concerns about imports of low-cost fruits and vegetables from Mexico, it’s important that U.S. produce growers steer clear of trying to bring dumping cases and instead respect the trade deals now in place.

Nelia Alamo, director of Marketing and Fresh Strategies at Renaissance Food Group and a member of United Fresh, said the committee members need to press their colleagues in Congress “to take action to address our critical labor needs.”

“Our industry needs leaders,” she said.

Animal disease prevention was on the mind of Bill Mattos, president of the California Poultry Federation, who said his group was joining with the National Turkey Federation and more than 70 other groups for a mandatory program in the farm bill focused on tackling both animal pests and diseases.

Vaughn Koligian, director of Corporate Sustainability at Sun-Maid Growers, spoke in favor of a bill introduced by Rep. Bruce Poliquin, R-Maine, to allow canned, dried, frozen, or pureed fruits and vegetables to be used in the school lunch program. He cited the Dietary Guidelines released in 2015, which said that “all forms of foods, including fresh, canned, dried, and frozen, can be included in healthy eating patterns.”

Poliquin’s bill, H.R. 3402, has eight co-sponsors, including Valadao. Poliquin introduced the same bill in the last Congress, where it picked up 17 co-sponsors but never got a hearing.


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