Wrestling Over Food Stamps Dooms Farm Bill

Rep. Steven Stockman (R-Texas) said in a press release two days before the vote that Democrats participating in the challenge have been intentionally buying overpriced food to make the cuts appear more severe.

Donny Ferguson, communications director and agricultural policy adviser in Stockman’s office, took the challenge in response to around 30 House Democrats who had taken the challenge to protest the proposed cuts to the food assistance program.

“I wanted to personally experience the effects of the proposed cuts to food stamps. I didn’t plan ahead or buy strategically, I just saw the publicity stunt and made a snap decision to drive down the street and try it myself. I put my money where my mouth is, and the proposed food stamp cuts are still quite filling,” Ferguson said.

Ferguson declared himself “the Undisputed 2013 SNAP Challenge Champion” after feeding himself for a week with a daily budget of $3.94 a day, less than the $4.50 the challenge required.

Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.), who took on the challenge along with his fellow Democrats, said the food assistance programs lessen dependency by providing a better diet to recipients, which contributes to a person’s productivity and motivation.

“I conclude that adequate food assistance for people who need a hand up benefits the recipients and creates greater value for society as a whole,” said Johnson after completing the challenge.

SNAP, a program seen by many Democrats as untouchable and by many Republicans as unsustainable, is the largest of the 15 domestic food and nutrition assistance programs overseen by the USDA. The current form of SNAP started as an unlikely alliance between Sens. Bob Dole (R-Kan.) and George McGovern (D-S.D.) in the 1970s. The Food Stamp Reform Act of 1977 eliminated the requirement to purchase food stamps, which had been a part of the program since its creation in the 1930s.

Seventy-five percent of SNAP participants use their own money, in addition to SNAP benefits, to purchase food, according to the USDA. Nearly 40 percent of households receive the maximum allotment.

The maximum monthly benefits increase as the size of the household grows. Households with children receive 71 percent of all SNAP benefits. A family of five, for instance, may receive a maximum allotment of $793 a month. The USDA publishes an extensive list of recipes that can be used to produce a healthy low-cost meal, and it has created official food plans that spell out the cost of “a nutritious diet” at four different levels of cost.

The maximum SNAP benefit is supposed to cover more than 100 percent of the “Thrifty plan,” the lowest-cost option, which for a family of five would cost between $600 and $800 a month.

Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) introduced an amendment to restore the $20.5 billion cuts from SNAP by making equivalent cuts to the farm subsidy programs. His amendment failed 188 to 234, mostly on a party-line vote.

Many agricultural policy observers have suggested separating the farm programs from the food stamp program into separate bills as a way to depoliticize the issue. For decades, lawmakers on the agriculture committees have added food assistance programs to farm bills to garner urban votes.

“The food stamp portion creates a reason for urban representatives to support farm subsidies, and for farm-state lawmakers to support food stamps,” said Daren Bakst and Diane Katz, two research fellows at the Heritage Foundation. “Talk of de-politicizing agriculture programs and welfare policy is met with stiff resistance.”

Republicans said the bill would come back to the House floor with changes, including proposals to reform the food stamp programs.