A Farm Bill we can be proud of

Because of the broad reach of this legislation, the provisions included in the final form of the Farm Bill will be a statement of our values as a country. And it’s important that—especially during this time of economic difficulty—our goal is a fiscally responsible Farm Bill that also reflects our commitment to protecting benefits for struggling families and children who would otherwise go hungry.

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As you may know, in addition to delineating commodity programs and encouraging farmers and producers to adopt sustainable practices, the Farm Bill also authorizes and funds food assistance for some of the neediest Americans.

A common talking point during the increasingly contentious Farm Bill debate is that we need to cut funding for federal nutrition programs in order to remove waste.  And as a member of the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Democrats, I agree that we must be responsible stewards of federal funds and take care to spend each taxpayer dollar efficiently and effectively.

However, I also strongly believe that we can’t balance the budget on the backs of the children, families and seniors who rely on nutrition assistance programs to meet their basic needs.

Earlier this year, the House Committee on Agriculture was forced to vote on a budget package that contained an astounding $36 billion in cuts that came solely from nutrition programs. Focusing our cuts to the Farm Bill on nutrition programs is the wrong thing to do and places an unfair burden on hungry children, poor families and vulnerable seniors.

If the proposed House cuts were to go into effect—among many other dire consequences—280,000 children would lose their access to free school lunches. This would deal a serious blow to already at-risk children because good nutrition is an important part of their ability to develop and learn. We know from evidence and experience that hungry kids can’t concentrate in the classroom.

With the dire potential ramifications of these cuts in mind, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops  sent a letter to the House Agriculture Committee urging its members to consider the morality and human impact of these proposals and the devastating effects they will have for many Americans. The Bishops’ points are valid, and they are correct that such deep cuts are both unjustified and unconscionable.

But not only is preserving funding for these nutrition programs the right thing to do, it is also in our best economic interest. One of the Farm Bill’s key programs is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (known as SNAP). SNAP’s value is not only in the crucial assistance it provides to hungry families but also in its benefits for our economy. According to the USDA, every $5 in new SNAP benefits generates as much as $9 in total economic activity, acting as an economic stimulus for low-income communities. SNAP also provides employment and training programs: 3,000 farm jobs are generated from the approximately $1 billion of retail food demands.

Recently, the Senate began floor consideration of its version of the Farm Bill. The Senate’s proposal leans heavily on the package put together last fall by the Super Committee and is a good starting point for future discussions. Rather than forcing our neediest residents to bear the full burden of the funding cuts, the Senate’s Farm Bill proposal takes a more fair approach that makes across the board cuts and asks everyone to put some skin in the game to keep food affordable and available. While not perfect, it is a key step toward a workable solution.

For economic reasons as well as moral ones, Congress must prevent these devastating and unfair cuts to nutrition programs and make sure that we do not lose sight of our obligation to Americans who rely on these services.

I look forward to working with my colleagues to make sure that the values reflected in our final Farm Bill are ones our country can be proud of.

Rep. Cuellar (D-Texas) serves on the House Agriculture Committee.

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