Farm Bill: What’s in it for Hungry Seniors?
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Farm Bill: What’s in it for Hungry Seniors?

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February 3, 2014

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After more than two years of contentious debate, the Farm Bill renewal is about to pass Congress.

The House approved a bipartisan agreement last week, and the Senate is expected to do the same today.

The legislation includes both positives and negatives for older Americans who are food insecure.

Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)

A total of $8.6 billion will be cut from SNAP, formerly Food Stamps, over the next 10 years. This is due to changes in the Standard Utility Allowance, which boosts benefit levels based on household utility costs.

While this change is estimated to affect only people in 16 states and the District of Columbia and 4% of beneficiaries overall, as many as 850,000 households could lose up to $90 per month in assistance, and it comes on top of an $11 billion cut that affected all beneficiaries in November.

Throughout the debate, food assistance for the most vulnerable Americans continued to be in the crosshairs. This is despite the fact that SNAP spending will naturally decrease as the economy improves and people find jobs, and that the program had its lowest error rate ever in 2012.

The legislation also places additional restrictions on SNAP outreach. Given that only one-third of seniors eligible for the program actually participate, NCOA and other advocates plan to address this in the coming weeks as the new provisions are put into effect.

On the positive side, the legislation includes a proposal to enhance services for elderly and disabled SNAP participants, particularly those who are homebound. Benefits can now be used to pay for nonprofit grocery delivery services, as long as certain standards are met, such as excluding the delivery fee. Until rules are issued, this benefit is limited to 20 services.

Although SNAP cannot be used to purchase prepared food, a few states have elected to waive this rule for certain vulnerable participants who lack the means to prepare and store food—including seniors, persons with disabilities, and the homeless—allowing them to use benefits at certain restaurants. The legislation retains this provision and strengthens the reporting requirements to ensure that this limited exception is used properly.

Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP)

The final legislation also provides for the transition of the Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP) to a seniors-only program. CSFP delivers nutritious food packages to low-income, food-insecure households.

Over time, an increasing number of mothers and their young children have been served by the Special Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), rather than CSFP. As a result, nearly 97% percent of those now relying on CSFP are seniors.

Other Nutrition Programs

Other provisions that seek to expand access to healthy food include reauthorization of the Senior Farmers' Market Nutrition Program, testing ways to expand use of SNAP benefits at farmers markets and farm stands, and allowing SNAP benefits to be used for Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) purchases.

The bill also increases and indexes for inflation funding levels for The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP), which provides commodities through emergency food providers like food banks and pantries. A report by Feeding America found that seniors rely on food banks for food assistance more often than other demographic groups.  

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