Food Stamps and the Farm Bill: Why Should New York City Care?

By Ed Yowell and Nadia Johnson

If you care about the right of everyone to have food to eat, you need to know about the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly the Food Stamp Program), and its place in the current Farm Bill deliberations.

The Farm Bill provides, in addition to SNAP, programs that support farmers, rural development, conservation (to protect soil and water), and international food aid. And, many reformers want to see a Farm Bill that continues to support prior innovations benefitting family, beginning, disadvantaged, organic, and direct market farmers, community food initiatives, and healthier diets.

In the past, Farm Bills have provided safety nets for both farmers and eaters. Democrats and Republicans, urban and rural, recognized that food production and consumption are the two sides of America's food dime. The bills have balanced the interests of largely rural producers with those of largely urban eaters...until now.

What is SNAP? A Short Timeline

SNAP, as we know it now, is the product of a long evolution, including program expansion and contraction.

  • 1933: the first Farm Bill is enacted during the Great Depression and established crop prices and income support to help impoverished American family farmers without a market for the food they produced.
  • 1939: the first Food Stamp Program was implemented to help address urban hunger and malnutrition, while still fighting rural poverty.
  • 1943: the first Food Stamp Program ended with the nation's return to prosperity during World War II, but set a precedent for the Food Stamp Program that would follow.
  • 1961: a pilot Food Stamp Program was initiated in targeted counties and cities.
  • 1964: the Food Stamp Act made the Food Stamp Program permanent and expanded it to 40 counties and three cities in 22 states.
  • 1974: the Food Stamp Program was extended to the rest of the nation and became part the 1977 Farm Bill, resulting in an expanded population of potentially eligible individuals, an end to the Food Stamp purchase requirement, and lowered barriers to participation.
  • 1996: Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) replaced traditional Food Stamps, giving us a nutrition program that looks like SNAP today.

Enrollment in the Food Stamp Program grew from about 500,000 in 1965 to 14 million in 1974, when the program became national in scope. Food Stamp enrollment reached 28 million in 1994, was down to 23 million in 2004, and spiked, in the wake of the Great Recession, to a current level of more than 47 million Americans, about one in seven of us. The program cost $74 billion last year, about 80 percent of the Farm Bill and up from about $24 billion in 2004. Today, in New York City, about 1.7 million of our neighbors, including many children, depend on SNAP for their food.

What's Happening to Food Stamps Right Now?

The future of SNAP is less sure than at any time since the Food Stamp Program was cut back by restricted eligibility requirements in the early 1980s and again in 1996 with the combination of "welfare reform" and the effect of an improving economy. 

The long history of bi-partisan cooperation on the Farm Bill appears to be gone, as some believe that it has led to bloated programs that give too much money to wealthy, industrial farm operations, through commodity crop and insurance subsidies, or too much to hungry Americans, through SNAP, or both. In this time of sequestration and budget cuts, reform of the Farm Bill, and resulting cost savings, are on every political agenda, albeit it in very different ways.

The 2008 Farm Bill, including SNAP, should have been reauthorized in 2012. The Senate passed a Farm Bill, however, House of Representatives leadership failed to bring a bill to the House floor for a vote in that year. A panic deal was instead reached at the end of 2012, as part of the "fiscal cliff" negotiations between Vice President Biden and Senate Minority Leader McConnell (R-KY), to extend a limited version of the previous Farm Bill for nine months, until September 30, 2013. 

On the downside, it included none of the full Senate Farm Bill's reforms or innovations, including programs supporting beginning farmers, farmers market promotion, and organic and specialty crop (fruits and vegetables) research and funding for nutrition education was cut significantly. Nor, on the upside, did it include the Senate's $4 billion, ten year, SNAP cut. And, it did not include the House Agriculture Committee Bill's draconian $16 billion, ten year, SNAP cut (in the 2012 version of House Ag Committee Bill, subsequently raised to more than $20 billion in a 2013 version). These SNAP cuts would have reduced or eliminated the SNAP benefits of millions of hungry Americans, many of them in New York State and New York City.

Many contend that the main reason the House failed to pass a Farm Bill in June, 2013 was SNAP, with $20 billion in cuts being too high for most Democrats and too low for many Republicans. In addition, many Republicans wanted larger crop and insurance subsidy cuts and a number of Democrats voted "nay" to reject several last minute, anti-SNAP Republican amendments. 

After the failed June vote, House leadership decided to move on a Farm (No Food) Bill, for the sake of expediency, as some believe, and to isolate SNAP for more radical reformation, as others believe.

In July, the full House passed a Farm Bill that does not include SNAP, by a highly partisan vote of 216 "yeas," all Republican, and 208 "nays," 196 Democrats and 12 Republicans.

Many are extremely disappointed by the House Farm Bill. Democrats representing urban constituencies think that SNAP will be more vulnerable in a stand-alone bill. Many food and farm advocacy organizations believe that separate Food and Farm Bills are bad for both sides of the nation's food dime, with programs important to the future of family farms and food production, like farmland conservation and new farmer development, also more vulnerable in a stand-alone process.

What Happens Next?

The House and the Senate must agree, in conference, on a single version of the Farm Bill before September 30, or face another extension of the 2008 Farm Bill. The House will either bring to the table its current bill, that excludes SNAP and other nutrition programs, or pass a separate Nutrition Bill, and thus bring its two bills, one farm and one food, to negotiate and reconcile with the Senate's comprehensive Farm (and Food) Bill. The Obama Administration has already indicated that the President will veto a Farm Bill that excludes SNAP.

In the coming years, New York City will have more mouths to feed and will have to cope with the unpredictable effects of a changing economy and climate change on its ability to do so. It will take the engagement of all of us New Yorkers who care about food, and our neighbors' rights to eat, to make sure that the City uses its estimable clout to help achieve and sustain a better food future, wherein everyone, every day, has access to ample, healthful food.


Ed Yowell, Slow Food NYC Board Member and SFUSA Northeast Regional Governor, and Nadia Johnson, Just Food's Food Justice Program and City Farms Market Network Coordinator, are members of the New York City Food and Farm Bill Working Group.


Blog Category:  Farms News
Tag:  Farm Bill