NNWO on farm bill: Navajo may need more food assistance, not less

By Alysa Landry
Special to the Times

WASHINGTON, June 27, 2013

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J ust 10 days after the U.S. Senate approved a Farm Bill that extended funding for important food-assistance programs for low-income citizens, the House voted down a version that would make drastic cuts to the same programs.

The Farm Bill, which lays out funding for diverse programs like crop insurance and foreign food aid, also determines how much money goes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.

The bill also authorizes funding to the Commodity Supplemental Food Program and the Women, Infants and Children food and nutrition service, or WIC.

The Senate for two years in a row has passed its version of the bill. The House failed to bring its bill to a vote last year and a bill that would have cut SNAP by the biggest amount since 1996 failed in that chamber June 20. Food stamps and nutrition services make up the biggest part of the Farm Bill. In recent years, food assistance comprised about 80 percent of the bill, or about $80 billion per year.

The Senate bill calls for a $4 billion reduction in SNAP funding, while the failed House bill tried to skim off $20.5 billion. The House bill had little chance of becoming law, however, because the White House threatened to veto any bill that made cuts that deep.

The Navajo Nation, which experiences unemployment rates as high as 50 or 60 percent, is watching negotiations, said Clara Pratte, executive director of the Navajo Nation Washington Office.

"It's not hard to see the impact of cuts to food-assistance programs," she said. "If those are cut, it will hurt the people who need it the most."

The number of Navajo citizens who rely on SNAP is unknown because states administer the program and don't release demographic data. The Navajo Nation oversees its WIC program and reports between 11,000 and 12,000 Navajo citizens receive assistance every year. The commodity program serves between 7,000 and 8,000 Navajo citizens every year, Pratte said.

With sequester cuts trickling down to the local level and energy jobs in limbo as power plants shut down and lay off workers, Navajo citizens may need more food assistance, not less, Pratte said.

"We're looking at a post-coal-production world," she said. "Those who become unemployed are likely to remain unemployed longer. They may have to turn to SNAP, but if that's not going to be there, what's the option?"

The last farm bill that passed through both chambers was approved in 2008. Congress has until Sept. 30 to reauthorize it.

With that deadline looming, the House is faced with the prospect of starting over. Another option would be going to conference without a bill and trying to negotiate something with the Senate.

Senate Majority Leader Henry Reid on Monday said his chamber won't pass a temporary extension of farm policy. That puts pressure on the House to come up with a solution even while Congress tackles other issues like an immigration bill and budget appropriations.

"Doing nothing means no reform, no deficit reduction and no certainty for America's 16 million farm-industry workers," Reid said on the Senate floor Monday.

Although food assistance funding is the main sticking point in negotiations, a failure to reauthorize a farm bill could also jeopardize federal policies regarding farming, agriculture and food inspection.