Nutrition title stands out in new farm bill

by Jay Sjerven
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WASHINGTON — The Food, Conservation and Energy Act of 2008 deeply disappointed those who sought a thorough reform of the nation’s commodity price support programs, but most found much to praise in its nutrition title. With prices of food and fuel rising rapidly and the economy edging toward recession, it was increasingly evident the nation’s food assistance programs were deficient and badly in need of overhaul and additional funding. The new farm bill went far in addressing those concerns.

Support for the $10 billion increase in food assistance funding as contained in the nutrition title spanned the political spectrum.

"This farm bill gives working families a fighting chance as they face the rising cost of food, ending years of erosion of food stamp benefits," said Representative Rosa L. DeLauro of Connecticut, a Democrat. "In the process, we will help more than 10 million people — families with children, seniors and people with disabilities — afford an adequate diet."

Senator Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, ranking Republican member of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, said, "Our bill provides certainty to America’s farmers and ranchers and restates the strong commitment of Congress to the hungry and less fortunate. The farm bill includes provisions to help low-income Americans meet nutritional needs by providing school children with increased access to fresh fruit and vegetables and enhancing our investments to the Food Stamp Program and food banks."

The nutrition title changed the name of the Food Stamp Program to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to reflect the change from food coupons to debit-like electronic benefit transfer cards.

Several adjustments in eligibility criteria were made to expand the reach of SNAP. To help restore the food purchasing ability of low-income families, the act raised the standard deduction used in the SNAP benefit formula to $144 a month from the current $134, with the new standard deduction hereafter to be indexed for inflation. The Congressional Budget Office estimated the change will increase monthly benefits for as many as 14.5 million households.

Previously, low-income families were allowed to deduct up to $175 per month for the cost of childcare. The deduction wasn’t increased in more than a decade despite the average monthly cost of childcare climbing to around $630. The farm act allows full deduction for childcare expenses in calculating family income and food assistance levels.

Under the former law, if a household had more than $2,000 in assets ($3,000 for households with an elderly or disabled member), it was ineligible to receive food assistance. The $2,000 limit remained largely unchanged since it was established in 1977. The new act indexes the limit for inflation. Additionally, a measure championed by Mr. Chambliss exempted Internal Revenue Service-approved education and retirement accounts from counting against the asset limits for SNAP eligibility.

The current minimum food assistance benefit under SNAP at $10 a month hasn’t been raised in more than 30 years. The act raised the minimum benefit to $14 a month and indexes that level to future inflation.

The act built on provisions in the 2002 farm bill assisting families transitioning off of welfare by giving states the option to extend transitional food assistance for up to five months for individuals leaving the state-funded public assistance programs.

Federal nutrition assistance programs set out income requirements for eligibility. It was found in some instances the additional pay military personnel receive as a result of deployment in a combat zone made their families ineligible for food assistance. The bill included a provision to exclude combat zone pay from eligibility determinations.

To help strengthen the domestic food assistance safety net, the bill will provide an additional $1,256 million to increase commodity purchases for food banks through The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP). The increase will nearly double the current funding level.

"We are feeling optimistic today that relief may be in sight for the more than 35 million Americans living at the margins of hunger," said Vicki Escarra, president and chief executive officer of America’s Second Harvest, the nation’s largest charitable domestic hunger relief organization. "With the current economic downturn and rising food and fuel prices, this number is growing, while food inventories are scarce."

The nutrition title also provides $1 billion over 10 years for an expanded Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program that will reach as many as 3 million low-income children in schools in all 50 states and continues a program providing coupons to eligible low-income seniors for use at farmers’ markets, roadside stands and other community-supported agriculture programs.

This article can also be found in the digital edition of Food Business News, May 27, 2008, starting on Page 23. Click here to search that archive.

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