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Federal Farm Bill -- A Good Deal for NJ, Despite Cuts to Food Stamps?

Farm groups praise compromise measure as good for state agriculture, but anti-hunger activists argue this is not the time to trim food stamp benefits

farm stand

The $956 billion federal farm bill that now heads to President Obama’s desk for final approval has won praise from state farm groups who say the compromise legislation is beneficial for New Jersey agriculture and the best option for the state’s low-income families, though some New Jersey anti-hunger advocates are criticizing its 10-year, $8.6 billion cut in food stamps.

The bill, which passed the House of Representatives 251-166 on Wednesday and the Senate 68-32 on Tuesday, is likely to be signed by the president shortly after he gets it, according to press reports. Nine of New Jersey’s 12 members of the House -- five Democrats and four Republicans -- voted against the bill, as did newly elected Sen. Cory Booker, a Democrat. Sen. Robert Menendez, also a Democrat, voted for the bill.

The 2014 farm bill would cut $23 billion in spending over 10 years by changing food-stamp eligibility, ending direct payments to farmers, and consolidating farm conservation programs.

The bill also expands subsidized risk-management and insurance programs, which are similar to the federal flood insurance plan. Farmers buy into the insurance program and receive payments when they experience losses from weather-related and other disasters.

The crop insurance program will be expanded to include what are called “specialty crops,” or fruits, vegetables and horticultural activities, which will aid a significant number of New Jersey farmers, according to the state Farm Bureau. While the bulk of New Jersey farm acres are in wheat, corn, and other grains, almost two-thirds of the nearly $1 billion in farm revenue generated in the state comes from specialty crops.

In addition, the bill continues water conservation programs supported by many environmental groups, programs that fund agricultural research at Rutgers University, and other smaller grant programs that benefit smaller New Jersey farmers.

No More Heat and Eat

Changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, often called food stamps, would include the closing of what some call the “heat-and-eat” loophole. Under current federal law, about 15 states -- including New Jersey -- have been providing nominal (generally $1 to $5 a month) utility aid benefits under the federal Low-Income House Energy Assistance Program to households that pay their utility costs through their rents. This has allowed for larger shelter and utility deductions under SNAP guidelines, according to supporters of the federal farm bill, resulting in larger SNAP payouts to those families. This practice would be eliminated, resulting in an average of about $90 in SNAP benefit cuts per month for an estimated 850,000 families nationally, according to nutrition program advocates. State-level figures were not available.

The SNAP changes also establish a 10-year pilot that would enable states to create new work programs tied to SNAP benefits, a ban on SNAP recruitment advertising by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and tighter restrictions designed to ensure that only those eligible receive aid.

Peter Furey, executive director, of the New Jersey Farm Bureau, which lobbies on behalf of the state’s estimated 10,000-plus farmers, said the group is “bullish on the bill.”

“This new farm bill either tweaks or makes more efficient the overall farm bill,” he said. “It does not cripple anything in New Jersey, and we are happy to see it pass.”

Advocates in both parties say the bill, which authorizes farm and nutrition programs for the next five years while establishing a 10-year spending plan, will provide certainty for farmers and those in need of food aid.

The previous farm bill, which passed in 2008 over President George W. Bush’s veto, expired in June 2012. The House had initially proposed cuts of more than $20 billion to the food stamp program and more extensive cuts to agricultural programs, while the Senate had put $4 billion in food stamp cuts on the table. The House bill failed last summer and a faction of conservative Republicans, including New Jersey Congressman Scott Garrett (R-5), proposed $40 billion in food stamp cuts. A stopgap bill that would have funded agricultural programs and left the food stamp debate to a later date also failed in the House and it was unclear whether compromise legislation would be passed.

A conference committee of both houses hammered out the compromise that won Senate support on Tuesday and Congressional support on Wednesday .

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