CHAMPAIGN — The House version of a new five-year federal farm bill approved early Thursday includes a provision sponsored by U.S. Rep. Tim Johnson, R-Urbana, that allows food stamp recipients to use their Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program cards at farmers' markets.
Overall, Johnson — a member of the House Agriculture Committee and chairman of the Subcommittee on Rural Development, Research, Biotechnology and Foreign Agriculture — said he was pleased with the measure. It now moves to the House floor and, if successful there, will go to a House-Senate conference committee where differences will be resolved.
"Our farmers are the best in the world, producing safe, abundant and affordable food for the world. The agriculture sector is one of the few bright spots in our economy and must be protected," said Johnson. "At the same time, our country is hurting. We all must sacrifice where we can. Existing farm policy needs reforms across the board. This agreement, forged with input from both sides of the aisle and from many diverse constituencies, does just that."
The bill would cut current spending levels by about $3.5 billion a year, with almost half of that coming from the food stamp program.
Johnson said that even with the cuts, the safety net would be preserved "for those who continue to qualify under existing eligibility rules. I want to emphasize that nobody gets their food stamp allotment cut under these changes. But with some simple changes, we can correct abuses that are costing taxpayers billions."
One example, he said, "is the way some states are increasing individuals' eligibility. Some states automatically award food-stamp benefits to any household that gets any kind of low-income assistance program. In some cases, households get an income deduction if they receive Low Income Home Energy Assistance. In practice, this means that even $1 in LIHEAP assistance can translate into $130 in food stamp benefits. This loose and irresponsible categorical awarding of eligibility qualifies people even if they receive a pamphlet about assistance programs or are given access to a 1-800 help hot line."
Johnson said he was proud of a provision that permits local farmers markets "to deflect 100 percent of the cost of EBT (electronic benefit transfer) card readers, which will allow food-stamp recipients to use their SNAP cards at farmers' markets that were previously unavailable to them."
The change, Johnson said, will increase local buying, local consuming, better nutrition and better health. He said it "also expands access to fresh fruits and vegetables through a coupon program that doubles buying power when shopping at local farmers' markets."
The legislation also consolidates conservation programs for a saving of $6 billion. And maximum enrollment in the Conservation Reserve Program is limited over time, allowing enrollment to focus on the most environmentally sensitive lands and enrolled acres to be used for haying and grazing, among other reforms.
As a result of hearings in Illinois, he said, rural development programs will be retained but streamlined. And regulatory reforms on biotech research will "help prevent unnecessary delays in getting this work transferred from the lab to the field, an effort that not only rewards biotechnology research at the University of Illinois and other research universities but contributes to a safer and more abundant food supply."
Johnson called the House version of the farm bill "tough, but fair and in the overall best interests of us all."
Farm groups urged the House to move quickly toward a vote.
"We strongly urge Speaker Boehner to bring the farm bill to the floor for debate and to pass the bill quickly to provide America's farmers with the certainty and stability needed to remain viable," said Steve Wellman, president of the American Soybean Association. "While it may be called a 'farm' bill, it really is a jobs and food bill that affects Americans from all walks of life, and it must be made a priority."
"We commend the House Agriculture Committee for successfully marking up its version of the bill," said Philip Nelson, president of the Illinois Farm Bureau. "We urge the House leadership to schedule floor time as soon as possible so that the bill can be moved through the full House and into conference with the Senate."