Farm Bill '14 Will Cut Food Assistance in Fifteen States

The new Farm Bill, or, the Agricultural Act of 2014, is being signed into law today, and as usual, every sector of the country and economy is finding something to despise in it.

The sustainable foods movement can take heart and celebrate several small victories though. Farm Bill 2014 makes it easier for low income Americans to shop at farmers markets; it reinstates the National Organic Certification Cost Share program which reimburses the cost of organic certification to farmers; and it generally promotes sustainable agricultural practices and funding at higher levels.

But Seward has been watching the Farm Bill proceedings closely, and we did see some reasons to worry and finally lament – especially the inclusion of an $8.6 billion cut to “food stamps” (better known as SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program). Cutting SNAP even by the relatively small amount of $8.6 billion of an almost trillion dollar Farm Bill has caused hunger activists nationwide to hit the panic button.

With good reason. The “cut” in question shuts a loophole that only fifteen states have been taking advantage of but will leave tens of thousands of American children without access to food in the very near future. The Philadelphia Tribune predicted that the SNAP cut would mean $90 less per month per household in Pennsylvania (imagine if your household suddenly lost $90 per month for food). Neither Pennsylvania nor its food pantries are ready to deal with the fallout caused by this cut.

Minnesota was not one of the fifteen states that took advantage of the soon-to-be-closed loophole, so Minnesotans who receive SNAP benefits won’t be directly impacted. But because Seward Co-op has a sizable number of owners and shoppers who use federal assistance like WIC (funded by SNAP), we were watching the Farm Bill proceedings carefully.

The co-op’s Ends Statement (think “mission statement”) says the co-op values “equitable economic relationships” and “inclusive, socially responsible practices." WIC fulfills both of these Ends by making food available to more shoppers who might not be able to afford it otherwise. As a result, the co-op takes its involvement with the Minnesota state WIC program very seriously.

A great way of seeing just how important WIC is to the co-op is to look at how we handle three specific items. Eggs, baby formula, and bananas all need to be made available to WIC shoppers, but because we value selling local, organic, and Fair Trade versions of these products, we had a decision to make: Either switch out suppliers and sell conventional (cheaper) eggs, bananas, and baby formula, or sell those premium-priced products at cost or a loss.

We choose the latter. Why? Because our Ends statement direct us to include shoppers who might not be able to afford these foods otherwise. Only about %.05 of store sales come from shoppers and owners who use WIC, so we figured it was better to remain part of the WIC program and continue to sell Equal Exchange Fair Trade bananas to all our shoppers than choosing to turn our backs on either WIC shoppers or our banana farmers.

Furthermore, Seward shoppers who are enrolled in one or more state or federal assistance programs can join the co-op on a Needs-Based Owner-Membership. Owners who qualify for the needs-based option also qualify for a needs-based 5% discount on all purchases.

In an era when the Farm Bill and its social programs are open to slashing cuts, when access to clean, healthy food is more difficult thanks to the weaker buying power of many Americans, co-ops like Seward strive to make it as fair as we can for all our member-owners to eat well and stay healthy. This is a true neighborhood co-op: We want all our neighbors to shop here.