The next Farm Bill can build a more equitable SNAP program and food system


August 3, 2021
Max De Faria, 2021 Emerson National Hunger Fellow via the Congressional Hunger Center

Before COVID-19 disrupted food chains and ravaged the lives of essential workers, many people had never seriously considered the numerous steps required to get food from the field to the dinner table. But the pandemic demonstrated the vital importance of understanding how our food system works and what steps are needed to create a food system that works for everyone from small-holder farmers to food-insecure urban residents. Making a food system that works for everyone starts with a farm system that works for people and the environment — this is where the Farm Bill comes in.  

What does the Farm Bill do? 

Every five years Congress reauthorizes one of the most important pieces of legislation, the Farm Bill, which dictates much of the policies around food and farm systems in the country. The Farm Bill is a multiyear law that governs a wide range of agricultural and food programs. Its broad reach over these systems leads to a particularly lengthy legislative process, typically beginning a year before the law is set to expire. 

While the Farm Bill covers a broad range of issues connected to food and farm systems within this country, the limited jurisdiction of the Farm Bill’s committees of origin restrict the scope of the legislation. For the Senate, the chamber’s Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, & Forestry and the House Committee on Agriculture serve as the primary drafters of the legislation. Being confined by the jurisdictions of these committees prevents the Farm Bill from addressing a range of other agriculture-adjacent issues such as farmworkers rights and protections, child nutrition programs, tax-related food and farming laws, and the Clean Water Act. These limitations restrict what is covered under each chapter, referred to as “titles,” within the Farm Bill.  

The programs in the Farm Bill vary in scope, funding, and impact. Some programs within the Farm Bill such as SNAP are entitlement programs, meaning Congress is mandated to fund the programs in their entirety.  Additional mandatory spending in the Farm Bill covers crop insurance, farm commodities, and conservation programs offered by the federal government. Discretionary programs within the bill are funded through the annual appropriations process. The Farm Bill provides the necessary legislative language to authorize the scope of these programs but does not offer ensured funding for them.

The current Farm Bill and its failures... 

The last Farm Bill, Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 (P.L. 115-334), was enacted in December 2018 and expires in 2023. The 2018 reauthorization process had members of the House and Senate attempting to restrict and cut SNAP. In part due to RESULTS volunteers impressive advocacy, Congress passed a final Farm Bill that protected SNAP. The last Farm Bill also mandated USDA to review SNAP benefits, a process underway now. Nonetheless, the current Farm Bill continues to be criticized by anti-hunger advocates and farmers for the negative impacts some programs have on food and farm systems as well as the planet.  

The 2018 Farm Bill was divided into 12 titles (Figure 1). These titles address many of the primary farming programs that serve as the foundation for the industrialized food system that the United States has turned to and come to promote abroad. However, not every title is given equal priority and advocacy during hearings and negotiations. This Farm Bill compounded upon pre-existent inequities to further reinforce the racist origins and practices of our food and farm systems through lack of race-conscious policy writing and implementation.

Figure 1: Congressional Research Service. “2018 Farm Bill Primer: What is the Farm Bill?” March 2019.  

In addition to its failure to account for racial inequity in food and farm systems, the 2018 Farm Bill did not include crucial and necessary provisions to expand small-holder farmer access to programs or to support funding for programs that protect our planet. The 2018 Farm Bill widened loopholes for wealth mega-farms to exploit subsidies, maintained small investments in the Farm to School Grant Program, and failed to prioritize climate-resilient agricultural research. While these and similar provisions seek to uplift local, resilient food systems, discussions around the Farm Bill typically do not include extensive input from small-holder farmers, farmers of color, or people of lived experience with nutrition programs like SNAP.

Anti-hunger advocacy before and during the next Farm Bill  

Addressing the root causes of hunger including racism and classism demands that anti-hunger advocacy centers solutions informed by people of lived experience that accounts for the deep-rooted racial inequities of hunger.  

Prior to the start of the lengthy Farm Bill discussions, Congressional members have repeatedly indicated a desire to complete work on recovery legislation and child nutrition reauthorization (CNR). Additionally, Rules Committee Chairman McGovern (MA-02) has been coordinating listening sessions and compiling research on food insecurity and knowledge from people with lived experience. With these efforts, Chairman McGovern is calling on the White House to hold a second ever White House Conference on Hunger. CNR, the Rules Committee hearings on hunger, and the potential White House Conference on Hunger serve as excellent avenues to further engage all policymakers on the dire nature of hunger and food insecurity in the country. 

The pandemic has drastically exacerbated food insecurity and fragility within our agricultural system. All efforts previously discussed are avenues through which advocates can provide policymakers with the solutions that center the communities and people most affected. These opportunities present unique chances for the anti-hunger movement to create long term change for farmers and consumers in the 2023 Farm Bill.

What changes are needed in the next Farm Bill?  

Advocacy for the 2023 reauthorization of the Farm Bill will begin before we know it. While field hearings and negotiations will begin in 2022, midterm elections pose the potential to shake up what the final Farm Bill will look like. However, there are some crucial pieces that the next Farm Bill will need to address in order to strengthen our food system to equitably feed producers and consumers. 

Solving these problems requires centering the people at the heart of these programs in policy dialogues. 

Individuals with lived experience of poverty and hunger should be at the forefront of conversations regarding SNAP and how the Farm Bill understands nutrition. At the 2021 RESULTS International Conference, SNAP participants shared their reflections and experiences accessing benefits and the grueling process that has come with inadequate support for their family’s food needs. This conversation revealed areas for improvement that would uplift the individuals and communities that rely on SNAP. In order to do so, participants discussed the lack of cultural competency and compassion showed by caseworkers and the increasingly disastrous impact of issues such as the benefits cliff.  These participants and other people of lived experience with these programs deserve to be at the forefront of these policy dialogues, leading conversations around solutions that will uplift their families and their communities.  

In addition to intentionally uplifting people of lived experience, special attention must be paid to addressing the numerous ways in which race-blind policy negatively impacts communities of color, especially farmers of color. Programs such as SNAP can be shaped by the language included in the next Farm Bill. These recommendations compiled by Bread for the World, including engagement from members of RESULTS Experts on Poverty, would apply a racial equity lens to SNAP: 

  1. Increase the monthly benefit amount. (Under the American Rescue Plan, SNAP has been increased by 15 percent through September 2021. The United States Department of Agriculture is expected to complete review and revise SNAP calculations in anticipation of this end date.) 
  1. Increase access to and consumption of healthier food options  
  1. Eliminate practices that exclude or hurt people of color 
  1. Support SNAP-related measures that promote equity 
  1. Strengthen hiring, training, and accountability of caseworkers 
  1. Establish a mechanism for SNAP beneficiaries to equitably participate in program design, planning, and evaluation 
  1. Strengthen the collection and disaggregation of data with SNAP

While SNAP does currently promote racial equity according to Bread for the World’s research, the seven recommendations would strengthen nutrition outcomes among households of color, by working to address food apartheid. Food apartheid is a term used to describe how housing segregation, particularly redlining, has converged with lack of food availability to create areas devoid of accessible, healthy food options. Addressing these racist practices requires instituting racially equitable policies that account for disparities with different racial and ethnic groups.  

In the upcoming 2022 Farm Bill discussions, advocates have a unique opportunity to remind Congress of the need for an equitably resilient food and farm system. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted just how fragile and ineffective our food system is. In the next Farm Bill, advocates can demand Congress supports and funds programs that expands SNAP and protects our food system and planet.

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