Opinion

More adults would have to work to get food aid. That could hurt North Carolina.

Workers harvest strawberries at the Penny Produce farm in Willow Springs earlier this month.
Workers harvest strawberries at the Penny Produce farm in Willow Springs earlier this month.

The $100 billion dollar per year piece of legislation known as the Farm Bill is about more than just farms.

The House Agriculture Committee is set to debate this bill Wednesday and determine whether to send it to the entire House of Representatives for a vote. Some of the most substantial changes — and the reasons for the Farm Bill being at a standstill for months — are due to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as “food stamps.”

SNAP and other nutrition assistance programs make-up about 80 percent of the Farm Bill’s budget. In North Carolina, SNAP benefits are distributed at the beginning of the month, and nearly all benefits are spent by the end of the month. SNAP recipients receive an electronic benefits transfer card that is like a debit card. In 2017, the average amount of money SNAP recipients received was $187 per month.

Individuals can use their benefits to purchase certain foods at SNAP-eligible stores such as grocery stores, convenience stores, and farmer’s markets. They cannot purchase tobacco, alcohol or heated or prepared foods, such as food from restaurants.

SNAP is vital to our state’s economy because the money can go toward farmers and food retailers, such as grocery stores, convenience stores, and farmers’ markets. In 2010, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated that for every $1 dollar spent on SNAP benefits, $1.79 was reinvested into the economy.

SNAP provided more than $2.2 billion in benefits to approximately 1.5 million North Carolinians in 2016. The House committee’s draft includes strategies to cut the number of SNAP recipients by enforcing new eligibility requirements, such as stricter work requirements for able-bodied adults without dependents, which isn’t new for North Carolinians.

However, what is new is how the federal government would define able-bodied adults without children. Previously, they were defined as individuals between the ages of 18 and 49 without children. Now they will be defined as people ages 18 to 49 with children over the age of 6.

In 2016, about 459,000 SNAP recipients had school-aged children. The N.C. Department of Social Services would have to predict how many of these able-bodied adults with children over the age of 6 would be subject to new work requirements.

Another proposed rule is that within 30 days of enrolling in SNAP, if an individual can’t find work or doesn’t join an employment training program, he or she could be removed from the SNAP program for 12 months. If this happens a second time, the person is ineligible to receive benefits for 36 months.

One concern with these work requirements is that most SNAP recipients that can work do work. Additionally, unemployment rates in NC are at 4.5 percent, the lowest in over a decade. How are SNAP recipients supposed to find jobs when most of them already work and our employment sector is almost full?

If people are turned away from the SNAP program, there could be a rise in hungry people seeking food elsewhere. On a local level, this could put a strain on organizations that collect and distribute free food, such as food pantries, food banks, and faith-based organizations.

Let's not forget another area that is highly connected to SNAP — nutrition education, including SNAP-Education (SNAP-Ed). SNAP-Ed improves the likelihood that low-income individuals make healthy food choices within a limited budget and choose physically active lifestyles. Individuals that are SNAP eligible or have household incomes below 185% of the poverty level are eligible for SNAP-Ed.

Currently, the N.C. Department of Social Services oversees North Carolina's SNAP-Ed program, and it contracts with 11 other organizations across the state to deliver SNAP-Ed programs. The draft Farm Bill suggests having land grant universities (such as N.C. State University and N.C. A&T) administer nutrition programs instead of the Department of Social Services.

Lastly, since state nutrition education budgets will be based on the number of individuals enrolled in the SNAP program during the previous year, if SNAP enrollment rates drop due to stricter eligibility requirements, North Carolina may have less funding for nutrition education.

The Farm Bill isn’t just about agriculture. It's about jobs, nutrition, education and, most importantly, health.

Lindsey Haynes-Maslow, PhD, MHA, is assistant professor and extension specialist in the Department of Agricultural and Human Sciences at N.C. State University.
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