House Appropriations Bill Takes Broad Aim At Food Assistance Programs

June 21, 2011

I wouldn’t want to leave the impression that the just-passed funding allocations for the U.S. Department of Agriculture are fine, except for the cut to WIC (the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children).

The House also took the knife to two other nationwide food assistance programs — the Commodity Supplemental Food Program and the Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP).

Neither of these, I think, is a household word. So here’s a brief overview of what the programs do and the cuts that the House just voted for — or rather, that House Republicans voted for, since they passed the bill with no Democratic support.

The Commodity Supplemental Food Program provides, as its name suggests, food products — all packaged or canned — to supplement the diets of low-income people.

USDA purchases the products, selecting a mix that will compensate for common nutritional deficiencies. It distributes them to state agencies, which in turn distribute them in food packages — either directly or through nonprofit organizations.

At this point, 39 states and the District of Columbia participate in the program, along with Indian reservations in two states that don’t participate.

Eligibility is limited to two groups — the same population that’s eligible for WIC and seniors 60 years and older with household incomes at or below 130% of the federal poverty line.

Since pregnant women, mothers and their young children can’t participate in both WIC and CSFP, about 96% of participants are seniors. In Fiscal Year 2010, an average of 497,000 of them got a food package in any given month.

The program was then funded at $171.4 million. The House has cut its funding to $138.5 million — about 21% less than it’s getting now under the continuing resolution that’s this year’s substitute for a regular federal budget.

When the House passed its original version of the CR, the Food Research and Action Center warned that the proposed $20 million cut to CSFP would deny food packages to 81,000 low-income seniors.

The cut that’s now been approved would leave CFSP with $12.9 million less than what it would have had under the House CR. So it seems reasonable to suppose that an even larger number of seniors will lose their food packages — if the Senate doesn’t reject the cut.

These are seniors who, if living alone, have annual incomes at or below $14,157 — less than $1,180 per month. They’d reportedly have to pay about $50 a month to purchase the foods they now get in their CSFP packages.

A big bite out of a small budget that’s also got to cover all other basic needs.

TEFAP also provides food assistance in the form of commodities that have already been processed and packaged.

Here too, USDA purchases and distributes them to states, based on what states choose from a list that looks much like the CSFP list. USDA also gives states a variable quantity of bonus commodities, i.e., foods it buys to support producers’ prices when supply exceeds demand.

The commodities then go directly to soup kitchens, food pantries and other emergency food providers or to food banks that distribute them to such programs.

As I wrote last year, TEFAP had less for food purchases than it did in Fiscal Year 2009 — though food banks and the partner agencies they distribute to were reporting shortfalls.

The House has cut TEFAP funding by $63 million — $51 million less for commodity purchases and $12 million less for storage and distribution.

Feeding America and 46 other concerned organizations say that the emergency food system is already facing a projected 50% reduction in bonus commodities. The House cuts on top of this loss “will force many local agencies to reduce support for existing clients or turn new clients away.”

This at a time when need is extraordinarily high and the system already strained.

The House agriculture appropriations bill now goes to the Senate, which doesn’t have even a basic budget plan yet. What will happen next is anybody’s guess. Yet another continuing resolution wouldn’t surprise me.


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