GOP-slashed Farm Bill to take a bite out of food stamps, separate consumers from local farms

    Customers are shown shopping for produce at the Hunger Mountain Co-op in Montpelier, Vt. (AP Photo/Toby Talbot, file)

    Customers are shown shopping for produce at the Hunger Mountain Co-op in Montpelier, Vt. (AP Photo/Toby Talbot, file)

    A few weeks ago, a computer error with my food stamps was a powerful reminder of the strong communities that grow up around urban sustainable farming.

    On Saturday, Oct. 12, a computer error with my food stamps was a powerful reminder of the strong communities that grow up around urban sustainable farming

    The day was mostly typical for my sons and I. We walked from our Kensington area apartment to Greensgrow Farm on Cumberland Street near Aramingo Avenue.

    They have materials for home gardening, an area devoted to terrariums, a pig named Milkshake, some chickens, an aggressive duck, and a few goats. Also, seasonally on Thursdays and Saturdays, they have an open farmers market where they sell locally grown fruits and vegetables as well as local milks, cheeses, eggs and even sustainable seafood.

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    But what made this day a little different: My ACCESS card was not working.

    An ACCESS card is given to welfare recipients. Officially, the name of the program is SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, but most people call it “food stamps.”

    That Saturday, people in 17 states, including Pennsylvania and New Jersey, lost access to their benefits because of a computer system error. The cashier ran the card for my $7 worth of kale, sweet potatoes, and milk again and again. She asked a manager to come help her.

    “It’s the card,” I heard him say within the small hut where the two cashiers weigh and ring up goods. “It’s not working.”

    The safety net of strong community

    People on welfare live with this fear daily — the instability of food stamps looms over each food purchase. Fortunately, one of the tenets of urban agriculture is to support the local community. Greensgrow offered me payment alternatives, even going so far as to offer me an IOU — something that would never happen at a supermarket.

    At a supermarket chain store, all hell can break loose, with people yelling and running through the store.

    Every day on food stamps, or SNAP, or any form of food aid, no matter its name, is extremely stressful — more stressful than any job I have ever had. And the majority of people on welfare who I have spoken to agree. The misconceptions that we do not work, that we would rather not work, that we are less for some reason because we need assistance to feed our families are experiences we all would rather not have in common, but we do.

    Developing a relationship between my family and the local urban farm, and organizations like the New Kensington Community Development Corporation, to purchase locally grown produce, eggs and dairy, has not only been cost-effective and conducive to community building. It also teaches my children, every time we visit, that food comes from the earth through great care and attention — and the same should go into how we sustain our environments and ourselves.

    A bite out of my budget

    Today all SNAP allocations are being reduced as temporary funding from the 2009 stimulus bill expires. As it is, each person on food stamps gets just under $1.50 for each meal every day. A family of three in Pennsylvania (let us imagine a single working mother with two children) must earn less than $2,605 a month to qualify for food stamps — that is before any expenses, including rent and utilities. That mother will lose approximately 16 meals from her table.

    She’ll lose even more if the 2013 Farm Bill, including cuts passed in Eric Cantor’s Republican-controlled House, passes as is.

    SNAP accounts for about 80 percent of the Farm Bill every year. These issues affect not only those most in need of food, but those who grow food, the small number of producers left in America. The National Farmers Union’s resolution on the latest Farm Bill states:

    “In a final bill, the conference committee must reconnect the nutrition title, which was stripped out in the House’s version. Failure to do so would undermine the decades-old coalition of rural and urban members that have historically supported both a safety net for farmers as well as for food the insecure. Nutrition programs serve rural as well as urban residents. One in six people in both rural and urban areas utilize the Supplemental Nutrition Program.”

    Cuts to the Farm Bill, restrictions on food stamps, and movement away from government nutritional aid creates a divide between the people who need food the most and the places food comes from. They would be literally separated in government, where they have been tied since the beginning of food and farm subsidies. Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) called the changes to the bill a “monumental waste of time.”

    Nearly 15 percent of all Americans receive some form of food aid. Many of them are children living in poverty. There have been reports on research saying that poverty and health, particularly as it relates to food, have a correlation. It is estimated that hundreds of thousands of children will be negatively affected by the passage of the 2013 Farm Bill because of its impact on school meals, keeping in mind that many of the poorest children get not just lunch but also breakfast at school.

    Kristen Gillibrand, a U.S. Senate candidate in New York, and 39 senators wrote a letter to 2013 Farm Bill Conference attendees asking that they sincerely reconsider making these cuts to food aid in the bill. (A draft letter can still be sent and can be found here.)

    Food needs to come from somewhere. A closer connection to that food production can positively affect communities while supporting those in need with low-cost produce and incentives for purchasing food from local farms that have been traditionally offered through SNAP. The 2013 Farm Bill will affect every American by negatively impacting farmers as well as those that cannot afford food, and it should not pass as it is.

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