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Cutting SNAP benefits is 'not the right policy,' Agriculture Secretary Vilsack says

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack speaks during a panel discussion on Friday, May 3, 2024, at Tyrone Echols Senior Center in Venice, Ill.
Eric Lee
St. Louis Public Radio
U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack speaks during a panel discussion on Friday at Tyrone Echols Senior Center in Venice, Ill.

As Farm Bill negotiations hit full force in Washington, D.C., in the next few weeks, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said he’s not on board with making cuts to a food assistance program for lower-income Americans.

Vilsack praised Sen. Debbie Stabenow’s proposal, which outlined Democrats’ priorities for massive omnibus legislation, which is passed roughly every five years. The chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee released her 94-page proposal last week.

It includes maintaining a five-year reevaluation of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

As part of debt ceiling negotiations last summer, Democrats agreed to raise the work requirement age limit for the program to 55. Some Republicans had long pushed for that, arguing increasing the age could help lift Americans out of poverty. With negotiations ramping back up ahead of the Sept. 30 deadline, some GOP congressional members want further cuts.

“It’s breaking a deal — and it’s not the right policy,” Vilsack said on Friday while visiting Venice, Illinois, just across the river from St. Louis.

Rep. Glenn Thompson, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, released his five-page summary this week, which recommended $28 billion in SNAP cuts. The Republican’s proposal would nix the USDA’s five-year reevaluation, which the department last performed in 2021.

U.S. Representative Nikki Budzinski, D-Springfield, right, during a panel discussion about Metro East town’s food insecurity on Friday, May 3, 2024, at Tyrone Echols Senior Center in Venice. The Metro East city has a robust economic revitalization plan, which will include funding from Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker $20 million plan to help seed grocery stores in food deserts in urban or rural parts of the state.
Eric Lee
St. Louis Public Radio
Illinois U.S. Rep. Nikki Budzinski, D-Springfield, right, speaks during the panel discussion in Venice, alongside Secretary Tom Vilsack.

But the USDA’s Democratic secretary said Stabenow's proposal would avoid Congress having to make large increases in the future.

“It’s much better to over time adjust accordingly in small increments — so that families, who need the help, get help and appropriate help,” Vilsack said.

Initially, the 2018 Farm Bill was set to expire last September, but lawmakers extended it until this September amid stalled negotiations over other legislation.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle and farm advocacy groups have said Congress needs to act on a new farm bill.

“It’s important, I think, for Congress to focus and to recognize that this has to be a practical farm bill,” Vilsack said. “This has to be not a pie in the sky, not hopes and dreams and going to give you everything you’re asking for.”

Increasing the crop support payments, called reference prices, may be an area where Republicans and Democrats agree. Many farmers have said those price points are too low, but some agricultural economists argue the program is a waste and doesn’t make a big difference in farmers’ bottom lines.

Farmland is seen during a Lighthawk flight on Wednesday, April 24, 2024, in Illinois.
Eric Lee
St. Louis Public Radio
Farmland is seen during a Lighthawk flight on April 24 in Illinois.

Under the current farm bill, there are already inflation adjustments for reference prices, Vilsack noted. Both Thompson's and Stabenow’s proposals advocate for increases to those reference prices.

Vilsack said he will await a lengthier proposal from the leadership of the House Agriculture Committee, which will meet later in May to vote on the first proposals. Senate committee leadership said it will vote after the House.

“It’s going to require some innovative, creative thought process, but it’s also going to have to be practical, because the folks out in the countryside are practical,” Vilsack said. “They understand you can’t do everything. You don’t have the resources to do everything.”

This story was produced in partnership with Harvest Public Media, a collaboration of public media newsrooms in the Midwest. It reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues.

Will Bauer is the Metro East reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.