In 1939, the administrator of the first Food Stamp program, Milo Perkins, laid out the program's goals, "We got a picture of a gorge, with farm surpluses on one cliff and undernourished city folks with outstretched hands on the other. We set out to find a practical way to build a bridge across that chasm." Perkins served under Secretary of Agriculture Henry Wallace, the first of many agriculture secretaries to champion food and nutrition programs that would serve the needy and strengthen the agricultural economy.
Nutrition assistance programs have been part of the federal farm bill for more than three decades. In fact, nutrition programs and commodity price and income support programs have always been the chief drivers of both the cost and the politics of the federal farm bill. Over time, the federal farm bill has come to support conservation programs, rural development, horticulture and other rural interests, but compared to nutrition and commodities, these have been very minor players historically. In the Northeast, where commodity programs are less important, nutrition programs have accounted for the biggest federal transfers under the federal farm bill.
Primarily because of the weak economy, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) grew by 70 percent between 2007 and 2011. Nutrition accounted for 67 percent of the cost of the 2008 farm bill, and 80 percent in the farm bill that cleared the Senate in July. Until our economy recovers, SNAP is likely to remain a large and essential part of the social safety net.
Because of its importance to so many citizens of our country, nutrition has played a pivotal role in the 2012 Farm Bill debate. As a matter of fact, the process of writing a new five-year farm bill came to a screeching halt in July because of vast divisions over cuts to SNAP. Both the House and Senate Agriculture Committees have been committed to passing a bill that reduces the federal deficit, but they differ on how much. The bill approved in the Senate cut $23 billion out of the 10-year farm bill budget, including about $4 billion from SNAP. The bill approved by the House Agriculture Committee bill cut $35 billion from the farm bill budget, with $16.5 billion coming from SNAP. Cuts at the House level would throw 3 million Americans out of the program and deny 280,000 children access to school meals. These cuts were not deep enough for many Republicans and much too deep for Democrats. The impasse threatened to derail the historic link between support for low-income consumers and bolstering the farm economy.
SNAP is good for farmers in New England. In 2010, the SNAP program added an average of $209 million a month to the New England food and farm economy. There are 851,000 households in New England that participate in SNAP, receiving an average monthly benefit of $245. Three-quarters of the households receiving SNAP benefits include a child, a person age 60 or older or a disabled person. SNAP participation isn't an urban phenomenon. Some of the highest participation rates for SNAP in New England are found in the rural states of Maine (17 percent) and Vermont (13 percent).
Increasingly, these benefits are being spent at local food and direct farm marketing venues. According to the USDA's Food and Nutrition Service, there were 2,445 farmers' markets and other direct farm marketing venues authorized to accept SNAP benefits in 2011, a 52 percent increase over 2010. The Farmers Market Coalition reports that $670,171 in SNAP benefits were redeemed at New England farmers' markets in 2011, but it's the whopping 256 percent increase over 2010 that illustrates the potential. Both the House and Senate farm bills include a provision to allow SNAP beneficiaries to purchase shares in community supported agriculture (CSA) farms.
The overwhelming majority of food available in groceries, where most SNAP is still spent, is now produced thousands of miles away. Here in New England, a large amount of farmers sell directly to consumers via farm stands, farmers' markets, CSAs and other direct means. Can SNAP be used as a tool to strengthen this direct-market economy?
The potential is huge. If just 1 percent of the federal SNAP program were spent directly with New England farmers (still leaving 99 percent for retailers), $30 million of additional money would be spent annually at farm stands, farmers' markets and CSAs. It would also connect low-income consumers with the most nutritious, high-quality food available.
A few barriers exist. Only a minority of farmers' markets and stands can accept SNAP. The USDA has traditionally offered free SNAP card readers, but markets need phone lines and electric outlets. Through the Farmers Market Promotion Program, the USDA has begun offering competitive grants for wireless machines. Last year, for example, markets in Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont all won grant support for SNAP-related projects. Seeing great demand this year, the USDA announced free wireless card readers for any farmers market not yet accepting SNAP.
However, equipping farmers' markets with card readers isn't enough. What about the higher cost of fresh produce? Several studies, including one conducted by the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont (NOFA VT), suggest that buying both organic and nonorganic produce at farmers' markets can often be a better deal than buying the same at a supermarket.
To address the "price problem," the Double Value Coupon Program of Connecticut-based Wholesome Wave has turned into a national model, active at a select 250 markets in 27 states, including all six New England states. The program doubles the average daily SNAP farmers market benefit of $4 a day. Farmers' markets in Rhode Island mixed the bonus program with cooking demos and fresh food workshops and saw a 32 times increase in SNAP spending during the first two years of implementation. At the same time that local farmers boosted sales, low-income customers were able to purchase fresh, healthy and affordable food for their families. The success of the bonus program offers insights into what the future of SNAP could look like. Both the House and Senate farm bills include cost share support for double-value coupon programs, and the New England Farmers Union and Farm Fresh Rhode Island are working to make sure the program gains a foothold in the nutrition title of the federal farm bill.
The gorge still exists between farmers and low-income citizens. Amending old and creating new policies that can address the gorge is important. You can help by becoming involved.
Noah Fulmer is executive director of Farm Fresh Rhode Island, an organization that is growing a local food system that values the environment, health and quality of life of Rhode Island farmers and eaters. Annette Higby is policy director for New England Farmers Union (www.newenglandfarmersunion.org), a membership-based organization committed to protecting and enhancing the economic well being and quality of life of family farmers, foresters, nursery growers and consumers in all six New England states. Get involved by becoming a member today.