Food policy experts almost universally despise the House of Representative's proposed $40 billion in cuts to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, saying it will be a disaster for families struggling with food insecurity, but there may be a silver lining in Congress' poor-bashing rewrite of the bill that provides funds to bring fresh food to food deserts.
The food assistance bill is headed for a conference committee to iron out the differences between the Senate and House versions, which both include a one-time allocation of $125 million for a Healthy Food Financing Initiative that provides grants and loans to fund fresh food retailers that open in low- to moderate-income areas, which the Department of Agriculture define as “urban neighborhoods and rural towns without ready access to fresh, healthy, and affordable food.”
The national program will be modeled after the Pennsylvania Fresh Food Financing Initiative, begun by The Food Trust and The Reinvestment Fund more than a decade ago, that has seen “huge success,” according to Food Trust Deputy Executive Director John Weidman.
About 88 projects have received financing in Pennsylvania, ranging in size from full-service supermarkets to corner stores, co-ops to farmers markets.
“The bill is really an expansion and a role for USDA to expand this work because it’s been so successful in Philadelphia,” says Weidman, whose organization has partnered with The Reinvestment Fund and PolicyLink to advocate for the expansion of the program.
The program was successful in bringing new food vendors to New Orleans, where many small grocery stores were destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. New York and California launched statewide programs a few years ago too.
The program is sparking positive health results in Philadelphia, as evidenced by a recent Health Department study of schoolchildren that found, in the past five years, childhood obesity is beginning to drop for the first time in three decades, Weidman said.
“Over that period in Philly, we helped bring in more grocery stores, more farmers markets, and a robust nutrition program in the schools,” he says. “We believe it’s a direct result of our efforts to improve food access in Philadelphia.”
Weidman says the program is a job creator as well.
Critics, however, say the program allows chain supermarkets to set up shop in low-income areas, the concern being that corporate grocers would be looking to capitalize on a market opportunity rather than engage and integrate with the community, catering to its particular needs.
While the lending program is open to chain grocers, Philadelphia’s experience suggests independent food sellers will be the primary recipients of the funding, Weidman said.
Another bright spot hidden behind the food stamp cuts is the continued funding for the “Farmers’ Market Nutrition” program. Under the USDA program, seniors and low-income families who are deemed “at nutritional risk” can receive coupons to be used at farmers markets.
The initiatives are part of an overall House bill that slashed nearly $40 billion from SNAP—five percent of the program’s total budget—over the next 10 years. Futhermore, recipients of SNAP who are childless and between 18 and 55 would also be required to find employment or enter a job training program to be eligible for the benefit. In the wake of the changes to SNAP, which would reduce the budget by $4 billion per year, as many as 3.8 million Americans could lose their nutrition assistance in 2014. The Senate version of the bill called for just $4 billion in cuts, and that significant difference will need to be reconciled in committee. If a compromise can be reached, the bill would go to the desk of President Obama.
Weidman admits he was a bit surprised that the Healthy Food Financing Initiative made it through, considering the charged and partisan debate around this year's Farm Bill. He hopes the program ends up in the bill that ultimately gets passed into law, but urges lawmakers to reconsider the depth of the cuts to SNAP.
“This cut will not only hurt families who are hungry, but businesses—all food businesses,” he says. “This will cost jobs to the food industry. We don’t think that $40 billion is a good thing for America.”