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Congress tackles food stamp changes in the farm bill

Jerry Leslie (left) and Clarence Winn, program manager (right), wheel shopping carts full of food to the line of waiting cars for the morning rush at the Urban Ministries of Wake County's food bank.
Eamon Queeney for NPR
Jerry Leslie (left) and Clarence Winn, program manager (right), wheel shopping carts full of food to the line of waiting cars for the morning rush at the Urban Ministries of Wake County's food bank.

RALEIGH, N.C. — Patrons of the Urban Ministries food bank line up in their cars outside the door, waiting to be among the first inside. It's a daily ritual. Residents from nearby neighborhoods travel into the city for their weekly groceries.

Fruits and vegetables are in bins and canned goods are ready to be bagged. Food bank employees and volunteers line shopping carts with boxes of food. And because it is a food bank, customers don't pay.

Urban Ministries, like many food banks across the country, has seen an increase in customers this year after federal expansions to programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program ended.

Those expansions happened during the pandemic and advocates against hunger credit them with keeping hunger insecurity down. Without expanded benefits, food bank participation has gone back up.

As folks get their boxes of food, they are asked if they are already participating in SNAP, as a way to locally gauge how many people are on the assistance and still need the food bank's help.

"What they're seeing is that there's an increase in folks who are saying, 'Yes, I do receive SNAP,' but their distribution numbers here are staying about the same," said Emily Kraft, the director of community outreach and support services at the Foodbank, an organization in North Carolina. "So it really reinforces that idea that SNAP is meant to be supplemental — that is not meant to be someone's entire food budget, which is why folks are still stopping in here."

Perhaps at most disadvantage are people in rural areas. Parts of the state lack jobs, transportation, broadband and grocery stories, Kraft said, which increases reliance on SNAP and food banks.

Now lawmakers and advocates have a new vehicle for expanded benefits: the 2023 farm bill.

Boxes of food ready to go at the Urban Ministries of Wake County's food bank.
/ Eamon Queeney for NPR
/
Eamon Queeney for NPR
Boxes of food ready to go at the Urban Ministries of Wake County's food bank.

The once-every-five-year piece of legislation is a hodgepodge of policies. The bill comprises 12 titles that, blended together, make up a measure known as the biggest safety net for American farmers.

But the largest portion of the bill is what is called the "nutrition title." It is the section that makes up about 80% of the bill's spending and helps to manage nutrition assistance programs, such as food stamps. Although food stamps are funded through the regular budget process, the farm bill helps make the rules for how the programs will work and who qualifies.

"SNAP is our country's most powerful anti-hunger program," said Josh Protas, vice president of public policy for the organization MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger. "Many of the questions that we're seeing in farm bill conversations are some big philosophical questions about who's deserving of assistance and ideological thoughts about what the proper role and size of the federal government should be."

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are looking to expand or limit access to the nation's top food assistance program.

Who and what is in and out

Over 40 million Americans are currently on SNAP. But there are significant barriers to accessing the program for college students, those in the military, those in U.S. territories and formerly incarcerated individuals, Protas said.

"There's a lot of opportunity to remove barriers and to do some more good in the farm bill," Protas said. "I think the pressure is going to be about what these expansions or improvements would cost."

Some members of Congress have already begun talking about some of the items they want to address in this year's negotiations.

A Republican staffer familiar with negotiations said that House Agriculture Committee Chair GT Thompson is looking at the possibility of repealing a ban on those with prior felony drug convictions from being able to access not just SNAP but the employment and training side of the food program, which allows SNAP recipients to get employment training and provides support such as transportation, child care and clothing allowances for participants.

There are also moves to reform the way personal vehicles are taken into consideration for the purposes of SNAP eligibility.

Earlier this year, lawmakers agreed to impose changes to work requirements for SNAP.

While a small faction of Capitol Hill Republicansmay push for further work requirement expansion, Senate Agriculture Committee Chair Debbie Stabenow said the issue of work requirements within SNAP is now done.

Food bank employee LeAnna Gibson loads a car.
/ Eamon Queeney for NPR
/
Eamon Queeney for NPR
Food bank employee LeAnna Gibson loads a car.

"As far as I am concerned, the issue of work requirements is settled for this Congress," she said in a statement.

Other members are talking about whether the program should buy only healthy foods. House Agriculture member Austin Scott, R-Ga., said in a hearing that he is concerned that snack foods can be purchased whereas a rotisserie chicken is out of reach for families on SNAP.

One other item lawmakers are preparing to tackle is the rate at which participants were over and underpaid, which most recently rose from7.36% in fiscal year 2019 to 11.54% in fiscal year 2022.

USDA Deputy Undersecretary for Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services Stacy Dean said pandemic "circumstances also put incredible strain on program administration. The first state-by-state set of payment error rates coming out of the pandemic reflects the challenging circumstances under which the state agencies were operating, and from which many are continuing to recover."

The chairs of the Agriculture Committees in the House and Senate saidthe error rate is "unacceptable and threatens the integrity of the program."

The timeline is tough for the farm bill. The current measure expires on September 30, meaning it is likely lawmakers will try to extend it while they work on final compromises.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jerry Leslie wheels a cart full of food to the waiting line of cars.
/ Eamon Queeney for NPR
/
Eamon Queeney for NPR
Jerry Leslie wheels a cart full of food to the waiting line of cars.

Ximena Bustillo
Ximena Bustillo is a multi-platform reporter at NPR covering politics out of the White House and Congress on air and in print.