Why you should care about the farm bill

The legislation affects hunger, food security and climate — and it begins expiring next month.


Jayme Tuomi wanted her grandchildren to have a childhood like her children’s, and her own: congregating with neighborhood kids at her house, devouring fruit snacks and granola bars, never feeling hungry.

But for Tuomi, who lives in Helena, Montana, money was tight. Just as she and her husband were finalizing the adoption of their grandchildren, all under the age of 9, her husband died of cancer. For months, Tuomi attempted to work full-time as a hairdresser while caring for the five young children, one of whom was a newborn, but eventually she had to retire.

To keep her family fed, Tuomi relied on a mishmash of programs, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. Commonly known as food stamps, SNAP helps people buy groceries. Around one in eight Americans receives SNAP benefits; more than one-third of them are children.

Aubrie Pohl, market manager for The Learning Council, writes a vendor a check for SNAP benefits that customers paid them at the Arbol Market in Paonia, Colorado.
Luna Anna Archey/High Country News

Because of SNAP, Tuomi said she could give her grandchildren the freedom to be kids, to invite their friends over without worry, to grow up without feeling that they were “less than.” Though she now receives Social Security survivor benefits and no longer qualifies for SNAP, Tuomi is grateful for the years of assistance: “It sure was great to have the help when I needed it,” she said. 

A sprawling piece of legislation called the farm bill funds SNAP and other programs. It’s renewed about once every five years, and the current farm bill will begin expiring on Sept. 30. When representatives return to Washington, D.C., next month, they will continue negotiating the next version of the bill, which will cost an estimated $1.5 trillion over 10 years — a 74% increase from the prior version, mostly due to inflation and changes in the way SNAP benefits are calculated. And it will affect everyone in the United States, even if they’ve never set foot in an agricultural field.

People should care about the farm bill “because they like to eat,” said Sakeenah Shabazz, policy director at the Berkeley Food Institute. “And they like access to plentiful, robust food resources. Those things don’t just appear out of nowhere. This bill really captures how food gets to us, who’s growing it and who gets to access those things.”

The farm bill is massive in scope, and includes funding for everything from rural development to forest conservation, renewable energy and international food aid. Here are just three of the many ways it impacts people all across the country.

Mark Waltermire, owner of Thistle Whistle Farm in Hotchkiss, Colorado, tends to red noodle long beans.
Luna Anna Archey/High Country News

Equitable access to food

Nearly 34 million Americans, or roughly 10% of the population, deal with food insecurity. SNAP — the largest federal program aimed at helping them — is entirely funded by the farm bill. In fact, the Congressional Research Service estimates that SNAP will account for 84% of the 2023 farm bill’s total budget.

Shabazz hopes that the bill’s next iteration makes SNAP accessible to more groups of people. Right now, simply having a low income isn’t enough to qualify for it: The program largely excludes full-time college students, recent immigrants and people who are unemployed for more than three months. Shabazz also wants the rules changed so recipients can buy hot prepared foods with SNAP, noting how important that is for people who are experiencing homelessness or otherwise have limited abilities to cook. “Expanding this benefit should translate to people having greater food access overall,” she said.

This bill really captures how food gets to us, who’s growing it and who gets to access those things.

Beyond SNAP, the farm bill also funds other nutrition programs, like those that distribute food from farms to food banks and help seniors shop at farmers markets. Bruce Day, executive director of Helena Food Share, said such programs are vital to his community. “(They’re) helping people who are struggling otherwise to put food on their table, making choices between what they pay for,” he said. “Do they pay for rent? Do they pay for their medical needs? Or do they buy food?”

Day would like to see eligibility requirements loosen and funding expand for nutrition assistance, especially in light of inflation. “If you were able to maybe feed your family for two weeks previously using SNAP dollars, it might be less than that now: 10 days or eight days,” he said. “That’s why we care about the farm bill — obviously there’s a lot that supports the work we do and touches the people that we serve in pretty significant ways.”

The cash box of the market hosts, The Learning Council, at Arbol Market in Paonia, Colorado. The market reimburses farmers for customers’ Double Up Bucks, a benefit of the SNAP EBT program.
Luna Anna Archey/High Country News

Long-term food security

Looking to the future, experts also say the farm bill has a major impact on the nation’s food security. “We are losing our working lands at an alarming pace,” said Lori Faeth, senior government relations director for the Land Trust Alliance.

Faeth wants more dollars flowing into a farm bill program that pays farmers and ranchers for the development rights to their land — ensuring that those properties never become strip malls or housing developments, and instead will remain land that feeds the country. She estimates that the program’s current funding is only meeting one-third of the demand.

Neva Hassanein, a professor of environmental studies at the University of Montana, also views the farm bill as a can’t-miss opportunity to bolster the health of the nation’s food supply. She’s a big fan of a farm bill program that pays farmers to try ecological techniques that can improve water quality, reduce erosion and promote soil health, thereby making crops more resilient to climate change.

She wants to see the next bill funnel more money toward such conservation-oriented programs, as well as toward initiatives that support young farmers. Without such support, Hassanein worries about the generations to come. “(The farm bill) affects the future and whether your kids and your grandkids are going to be able to have access to healthy, nutritious food,” she said.

Leda Stinson, farm manager, and Mark Waltermire pack daily produce orders at Thistle Whistle Farm.
Luna Anna Archey/High Country News

Climate mitigation

The way farmers grow food can do more than boost climate resilience; it can also help combat climate change, said Allison Johnson, an attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) who specializes in sustainable food systems. Like Hassanein, Johnson hopes that the next farm bill protects funding for conservation-minded farmers who employ techniques that could eventually help sequester carbon in the ground.

She’s also passionate about organic farming, which forsakes synthetic fertilizers that emit greenhouse gases during both production and application. Johnson is advocating for more financial support for organic farming, including for farmers who’d like to undergo the three-year organic certification process. (The last farm bill allocated just one-tenth of 1% of its budget to organic farming, according to an NRDC analysis.)

Johnson would also like to see a reduction in the crop subsidies and insurance allotted to large-scale farmers of soy and corn. She said that a significant portion of those commodities goes to feed livestock at factory farms, which in turn produce methane that contributes to climate change. The fact that they can receive feed at a highly subsidized rate, she said, is one reason such operations have proliferated.

“Thinking about ways that we can repurpose the money that goes into the farm bill to support climate-friendly agriculture is a key piece of the puzzle,” she said. “This is an area where having people who are not farming raise their voices is really important — because the political will, if consumers aren’t part of the conversation, is hard to move.”

The ramifications of the next farm bill will spread far beyond the boundaries of any one city, state or region. “It should probably be called the food bill,” said Hassanein, of the University of Montana. “It impacts pretty much everything in our food system, from field to fork. And so all of us should care what happens.”

Kylie Potts, Thistle Whistle intern, brings water and feed to the farm’s chickens.
Luna Anna Archey/High Country News

Susan Shain reports for High Country News through The New York Times’ Headway Initiative, which is funded through grants from the Ford Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF), with Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors serving as fiscal sponsor. All editorial decisions are made independently. She was a member of the 2022-’23 New York Times Fellowship class and reports from Montana. 

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