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Election Year Complicates Farm Bill's Fate

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Philadelphia (Philadelphia Inquirer, March 7, 2012):  On Wednesday, the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry will convene its third hearing in the nation's capital on the federal 2012 Farm Bill.

Should you care?

Born in 1916, the Farm Bill comes up for reauthorization about every five years. The current version expires in September.  It's a real behemoth, with tentacles that affect industrial and small-scale farming, land and energy use, agricultural research, and food safety.  But overall, the Farm Bill has more to do with food than with farming. And most of the nearly $300 billion in the bill - an estimated 70 cents of every Farm Bill dollar - pays for SNAP, otherwise known as food stamps.

And in an election year, when nearly every dollar spent on government programs is subject to criticism from Republican quarters, the 2012 Farm Bill could be reduced to a political tool.

It is a national bill with local implications, so Gabriella Mora, a project manager at the nonprofit Food Trust, has been coordinating meetings of this area's food access and policy advocates regarding the bill.  Mora plans to accompany Food Trust deputy executive director John Weidman when he testifies Wednesday in Washington.  As much as she'd like to see the bill expanded, "we've been told that expansion is unrealistic," Mora said recently.

As it is, in 2011, the Corbett administration cut $14 million from food stamps, rerouting the money elsewhere. And more recently, Gov. Corbett announced that an asset test for food-stamp recipients would go into effect in May.  So older people and the disabled with more than $9,000 in assets won't qualify for food stamps. For people under age 60, the threshold is $5,000. That's an estimated 4,000 hungrier Pennsylvanians.

"We want no further cuts in SNAP," Mora says. "We want to see government emergency-food donations extended to the unemployed for the first time. We want to protect the existing funding that supports farmers' markets and allows people to spend their SNAP dollars there."  "And we want to eliminate the asset test as a 'state option' in the Farm Bill."

On average, individuals on food stamps receive $32.50 a week, or $4.65 a day. In 2011, Philadelphia and its four surrounding counties all reported sharp increases in SNAP participants.

Another debate, not touched on by Mora's group, is about putting additional controls on what people can buy with their food stamps.

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