After a grueling, down-to-the-wire fight over the debt ceiling, Congress is gearing up to work on more must-pass legislation. That includes renewing the Farm Bill, a massive measure of crucial support for both agriculture and federal nutrition assistance programs that is reviewed every five years.
But changes to the program, as part of the debt ceiling legislation negotated by President Joe Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, will require older SNAP recipients to fulfill work requirements that they may have previously aged out of — and those changes have disheartened some advocates for lower-income Americans.
Farmers across the country are depending on Congress to renew the Farm Bill by the time it expires at the end of September.
Andrew Walmsley, government affairs senior director at the American Farm Bureau Federation — a grassroots organization that advocates for farmers, ranchers, and rural communities — told Spectrum News that not only are farmers impacted by the farm bill, but people who consume the food are as well.
"The Farm Bill impacts most, if not every, farmer and rancher; it depends clearly on the programs, but it also impacts every consumer," he said, adding that "investments in the farm bill help us provide a secure food supply."
The Farm Bill has existed since the 1930s. Historically, federal farm bills have concentrated on supporting a few staple commodities, such as corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton, rice, peanuts, dairy and sugar.
Further, the Farm Bill provides a safety net for farmers when nature sometimes works against them and secures rural development and conservation funding.
"If we didn't have some of those risk management programs, like crop insurance or Title I commodity programs, the potential is there to put a lot of farmers out of business," Walmsley told Spectrum News.
"Farmers and rancher's biggest business partner is Mother Nature, and that's tough to manage in some seasons, so having access to those tools is critical," he added.
But the largest expenditure is on nutrition and hunger programs, the largest being the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, more commonly called "food stamps," with 42 million low-income recipients. Under the program, recipients are generally granted a debit card with a montly credit that can only be used for purchasing select items through partnering retailers. According to federal data, monthly average SNAP benefits were about $245 per person, or $465 per household, nationwide in FY 2023.
"The benefits are very modest, but it's a very important lifeline and probably the most significant anti-hunger program the United States has," said Ellen Vollinger, SNAP Director at the Food Research and Action Center.
The new debt ceiling agreement between President Biden and House Speaker McCarthy added new work requirements for some SNAP recipients.
It required individuals who are non-disabled and do not have dependents, and fall between 18 and 49 years old, to only be eligible to receive SNAP benefits for a maximum of three months within three years unless they participate in work or other activities for at least 20 hours per week.
The new deal increases the age requirement to include individuals 18 to 54 by 2025.
"We were very disheartened to see that Congress [make] a change for the worse in the bill that was just passed and that they are going to extend that to somewhat older workers," Vollinger said.
"SNAP is an important lifeline, but it is not perfect, and there are gaps in its coverage; not only are benefits not adequate enough, but there are some populations that are disfavored within SNAP and have extra barriers to being able to get SNAP at all," she added.
And advocates say the need for nutrition programs is high now, with food banks seeing increased demand for two straight years.
"Many are seeing higher demand now than they did at the peak of the pandemic," Vince Hall, chief government relations officer at Feeding America, said. "And they're trying to feed those lines with less food across the board from donated food to the cost of purchased food to government-provided food."
In addition, advocates are urging Congress to consider allocating more funds toward emergency aid.
"We're asking Congress to double its investment in TEFAP [The Emergency Food Assistance Program] to help 200 Feeding America partner food banks address the incredible need they're seeing in communities all across this country," Hall said.
Still advocates for nutrition programs and agriculture programs are optimistic that the Farm Bill will still get done. But they acknowledge lawmakers may need to extend the current bill to buy themselves more time for a full renewal.
"The most important thing is less about the timing and more about the substance," Hall said.