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Congressional and Presidential Leadership Needed for a Fair and Equitable Farm Bill

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Will Congress and the president demonstrate the leadership necessary to enact a strong, but fair Farm Bill that protects our agricultural economy and rural communities? Will it provide a "safety net" for our most vulnerable citizens? Hopefully, the appointed Conferees will seek an opportunity to pass a strong Farm Bill that is fair and helpful to small and large farmers and will enable them to produce healthy and affordable food. The Farm Bill should empower our rural communities to develop and grow economically. Likewise, it must protect and provide food assistance to the millions of Americans in need.

The leadership in the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate must instruct the Conferees to negotiate in the best interest of the American people. President Obama must be persistent in his leadership by calling on Congress to treat our most vulnerable citizens fairly, protect small and large farmers, and give rural communities an opportunity to grow economically. Another extension of the Farm Bill once again is unacceptable. Farmers and businesses, which have been devastated by the legislative uncertainty, are unable to plan for the next planting season, and cannot do so until Congress acts and the president signs a bill. This delay has hampered assistance for early generation farmers, minority farmers, and the rural small business sector who all suffer disproportionately without a signed bill.

The Fair World Project reports that the majority of farm subsidies are paid to the most profitable companies in the U.S. and "ten percent of farms receive roughly 70 percent of all subsidies." This oversized government benefit reaped by large farms is a major factor in their ability to further expand, leading to increased concentration in the agriculture sector. These subsidies often drive land costs up and small farmers out. Yet, the conversation continues to be focused on cutting the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). This political gamesmanship puts us again at the crossroads of the "haves and have not's," while too many Americans depend on SNAP for it to be cut in the final bill.

The House-passed Farm Bill cut $40 Billion over a ten-year period, mainly by cutting SNAP. The Tea Party and the extreme right wing of the Republican Party might see this as important part of its agenda to "cut spending," but such actions by the House have only resulted in ending 34 years of bipartisan cooperation on food and farm legislation. While Republicans in Congress continue to attack the Food Stamps program as an "easy place" to cut, they fail to recognize the needs of their own constituents and the contribution it provides our economy.

Some fail to acknowledge, understand, or care that we had a recession and that Food Stamps were a part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. This bill, known as the 'Stimulus Package,' was scheduled to end November 1, 2013 and resulted in millions of people being dropped from the program. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), ending the Recovery Act will reduce benefits to approximately $1.40 per person per meal in 2014. Just think $1.40 per meal! Further, the vast majority of the 47 million SNAP recipients are children, seniors, and adults with disabilities.

SNAP can be the bridge between living and survival, dignity and embarrassment. In fact over 900,000 veterans and 5,000 active duty service personnel currently receive food stamps. An example of this hardship was chronicled by the Food and Environment Reporting Network. Steven Johnson, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, was medically discharged from the military and was unable to find work as a result of his disability. To further complicate matters, there was significant lag time between the end of his military pay and the beginning of his disability benefits. The typical wait time for this benefit is 394 days for active duty veterans, and longer for non-active duty personnel. That is 394 days without a pay check. 394 days without the capacity to feed yourself or your family. To bridge this gap, Johnson relied on food stamps to help feed his family. As veteran Johnson said, "Food Stamps were the last resort we had." This is what is at stake for the Confrees and this President.

Unfortunately, there have been anecdotal comments of fraud where "people are trading food stamps for cash." While these instances must be addressed, but it is simply unfair to use these anecdotes to characterize how the law functions. The Department of Agriculture has reported that as few as 1.3 percent of all benefits, were traded at a discount for cash. I agree that fraud is unacceptable concerning all government programs and laws. However, it is amazing how offensive it is for Republicans to use assistance for the poor as a political piñata when fraud persists on Wall Street or among big businesses.

The Fair World Project rightly notes that the "Farm Bill is the single most important piece of legislation affecting the food we eat, the kinds of crops American farmers grow, and the environment in which they are grown. The Farm Bill is at the very essence of our nation's food security." This could not be more accurate.

The Conferees must put our country first to find success in their negotiations. A strong and fair Farm Bill will require Congressional and presidential leadership. The fate of our nation's food security depends on it.