ON THE WEB
For more information about the food stamp program, go to http://www.fns.usda.gov/cga/FactSheets/Food_Stamps.htm
WASHINGTON — As Congress faces a Friday deadline to pass a long-delayed $280 billion farm bill, Tennessee and Georgia lawmakers working on the legislation said they hope to preserve funding for food stamps.
“I’m a staunch opponent of reducing the food stamp funding,” said Rep. Lincoln Davis, D-Tenn., a member of the House Agriculture Committee. “We’re seeing more and more people get eligible (for food stamps) because of the loss of jobs and the economic downturn.”
The Congressional Budget Office, citing growing unemployment figures, projects the number of Americans receiving food stamps will reach 28 million by October, up from 26.5 million last year. The number of Tennesseans receiving food stamps increased 76 percent since 2001.
Funding for food stamps, food banks and other nutrition programs — about $206 billion over five years — could be squeezed as provisions to increase farm subsidies and farm disaster assistance add billions of dollars to the legislation.
Already, negotiators trying to reach a compromise between the Senate and House versions of the bill have lowered the amount of additional funding for nutrition programs from $11.5 billion over the next 10 years in the House-passed version to $9.5 billion in the latest version being debated.
Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., the ranking member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, said he also hopes to protect funding for nutrition programs.
“These programs are critical for families across America, and I will continue to work with my colleagues to keep these provisions in the final product,” he said in a statement.
FISCAL ISSUES LOOM
The main sticking points on the farm bill are unrelated to food stamps but can affect their funding because of disagreements on how to pay for some controversial measures, which have held up conference committee negotiations since both chambers passed their versions of the legislation last year.
The Senate version contains a $4 billion provision some lawmakers say is excessive that would reimburse farmers for weather-related crop losses.
The National Farm Union, however, says the weather disaster provision is vital to keep farmers in business.
“Farmers and ranchers are facing unprecedented increases in production costs; thus their financial risks are greater than ever,” the lobbying group said in a statement.
Opponents to increasing farm subsidies also said the bill gives the most subsidies to an increasingly concentrated group of corporate farm owners.
“We cannot and should not keep subsidizing wealthy farmers when food stamp recipients are getting squeezed by skyrocketing food prices and the ailing economy,” said the Rev. David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World, a Christian anti-hunger advocacy group.
PURCHASING POWER FALLS
The food stamp program was created in the 1960s to help eliminate malnutrition among low-income families. Eligibility is determined by a complicated formula that takes into account income levels, household expenses and asset holdings. The average recipient gets $99 a month, though some get as little as $10, records show.
Poverty and nutrition experts worry, however, that the purchasing power of food stamps has eroded as inflation has caused food prices to rise.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated that monthly grocery costs for low-income families rose 7.2 percent last year, while the average food stamp benefit grew only 4.8 percent.
In addition, anti-poverty advocates say, eligibility guidelines for food stamps have not been indexed to inflation.
The House and Senate versions of the bill address some of those concerns by increasing family income and asset guidelines, as well as food stamp benefits, but they still must be reconciled in the conference bill.
Lawmakers met Thursday to try to resolve deadlocks between the House and Senate.
“With the prices going up, food stamps just aren’t lasting,” said Clare Sawyer, president and CEO of the Chattanooga Food Bank. “I’m not sure how many of the foreclosures and job layoffs are getting to the people we see, but the amount of food we’re distributing is increasing.”