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Possibility of food stamp cuts makes some here nervous

Food stamp funding isn't immediately jeapordized with the vote removing the program from the farm bill, but the House vote on the matter has some jittery.

Posted on July 12, 2013 at 1:00 a.m. | Updated on July 12, 2013 at 6:50 p.m.

Food stamp funding isn't immediately threatened after removal of the program from the federal farm bill in a proposal passed by the U.S. House.

The proposed change, though, is causing jitters among some. If food stamp funding were slashed — not specifically contemplated per Thursday's House action, but, some critics fear, within the realm of possibility — the impact would be felt here.

“I'm pretty sure that people using food stamps also come in here,” Ed Swartley, executive director of The Window, a Goshen food pantry, said Friday, July 12. “If funding to food stamps is cut, people will start looking for something to go along with whatever other (aid) they are getting. Food pantries in Elkhart County, I'm sure, would see an increase.”

Significantly, Thursday's House vote makes one Elkhart County observer think efforts to cobble together a new farm bill will ultimately fizzle. The House voted 216-208, largely along party lines, for a farm bill stripped of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. The program, more commonly known as food stamps, provides funding for food for the needy.

“More than likely, we will not see a full farm bill this year,” Dwight Moudy, public information officer for the Elkhart County Farm Bureau, said Friday. That's the word he gets from national Farm Bureau reps in Washington, D.C.

Members of Indiana's delegation to the U.S. capitol, meanwhile, held out hope for a compromise plan with the U.S. Senate in the wake of Thursday's House vote.

U.S. Rep. Jackie Walorski, a Republican from Elkhart who voted with the Republican majority for Thursday's bill, emphasized that the House proposal doesn't foretell the demise of food stamps. By her reckoning, removing food stamps from the farm bill lets lawmakers assess agriculture policy and the food aid program — the two main elements of the farm bill — separately, on their respective merits.

“The House is pursuing the farm bill using a step-by-step approach to address agriculture assistance and food stamp policy as separate bills,” she said in an emailed statement Friday. “After yesterday's passing vote, I look forward to working on the nutrition bill as the next step.”

She went on, saying the food stamp program “continues to be available for Hoosier families in need and remains unchanged.”

U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly, a Democrat from Granger, said he backs the Senate version, which keeps the agricultural and food aid elements intact within the farm bill. That version passed last June by a 66-27 margin, with the support of Donnelly and Republican Dan Coats, Indiana's other U.S. senator.

The Senate version, according to Donnelly spokeswoman Elizabeth Shappell, provides “more deficit reduction and program reform” than the House proposal. He's “hopeful” Senate and House reps can reconcile their differences.

Coats, too, expressed hope for middle ground between House and Senate reps.

“While Coats has supported efforts to split the legislation in the past, he believes we need to provide some certainty to our farmers and producers now and pass a five-year reauthorization of the farm bill,” spokeswoman Tara DiJulio said in an email. “Without the stability of a five-year farm bill, farmers are left without important tools that could impact our food supply and eventually result in higher food prices for consumers down the road.”

'UNHOLY ALLIANCE'

Outside Elkhart County, Thursday's House vote is being interpreted in varied ways.

Mike Hersh, spokesman for a political action committee associated with the Democratic Party, Progressive Democrats of America, painted the House proposal in ominous terms. He still holds out hope for a compromise plan.

House Republicans “forced through legislation designed to harm people in need,” Hersh said in an email. “This vote may signal that the House Republicans will refuse to provide basic help to prevent hunger in America.”

U.S. Rep. Marlin Stutzman, a Republican representing northeastern Indiana, characterized the House plan as a victory in making government more transparent.

“Conservatives seized an opportunity to split the farm bill, a landmark reform that breaks the unholy alliance between food stamps and agriculture policy,” Stutzman said in a statement after the vote Thursday. “For the first time since the 1970s, taxpayers will have an honest look at how Washington spends their money on agriculture and food stamp policy.”

Back in Elkhart County, Swartley just worries that if food stamp funding gets cut — something members of both parties have discussed as the process has evolved, whether or not food stamps stay in the farm bill — the pressure will mount to come up with compensatory help for those in need. Food stamps has traditionally accounted for perhaps 70 to 80 percent of the farm bill funding.

“There will be more of a burden on the community (to donate),” Swartley said. “Somewhere, that has to be picked up.”

Moudy, the Elkhart County Farm Bureau representative, thinks it's easier to pass the farm bill with the ag policy and food stamps elements intact within it. As such, it contains elements of import for both rural and urban lawmakers, greasing the wheels of political cooperation. National Farm Bureau leaders didn't want to see a split.

“To get everyone's focus, we feel it needs to be kept together,” he said.

FOOD STAMPS IN ELKHART COUNTY, 2007-13

As of May of this year, more than 26,000 people in Elkhart County are receiving food stamps according to Indiana Family and Social Services Administration data.

The number of people receiving food stamps locally jumped significantly in 2009. In May 2008, 18,924 people receiving food stamps in Elkhart County. By the same month in 2009, 28,971 people were receiving food stamps.

Here's a look at the numbers in Elkhart County from 2007 to 2013.

• May 2007: Total food stamps issued - $1,600,560. Total recipients - 16,544

• May 2008: Total food stamps issued - $1,926,779. Total recipients - 18,924.

• May 2009: Total food stamps issued - $3,823,847. Total recipients - 28,971.

• May 2010: Total food stamps issued - $3,746,616. Total recipients - 28,832.

• May 2011: Total food stamps issued - $3,842,378. Total recipients - 29,618.

• May 2012: Total food stamps issued - $3,633,588. Total recipients - 28,051.

• May 2013: Total food stamps issued - $3,377,862. Total recipients - 26,143.

To apply for food stamps in Elkhart County, visit the Elkhart County Division of Family Resources office located at 1120 N. Main St., Suite 201, Elkhart. The office is open Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. There is also an online application at www.in.gov/fssa/dfr.

Follow reporter Tim Vandenack on Twitter at @timvandenack.


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