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Governors move to block Farm Bill's food stamp cuts

The governors of New York and Connecticut are shifting around federal assistance to prevent cuts in food stamp benefits from the 2014 Farm Bill.
A Harlem resident chooses free groceries at the Food Bank For New York City, Dec. 11, 2013.
A Harlem resident chooses free groceries at the Food Bank For New York City, Dec. 11, 2013.

Nearly 350,000 households have received a temporary reprieve from the food stamp cuts included in the 2014 Farm Bill, which was originally expected to cost as many as 850,000 households an average $90 per month in benefits. This week, the governors of New York and Connecticut—both Democrats—announced they would move around federal funds to prevent food stamp cuts in their respective states.

The governors were able to delay the cuts for one year by increasing the amount of heating subsidies that affected households receive. The 2014 Farm Bill, which President Obama signed into law earlier this month, cuts food stamp benefits for households which receive less than $20 per month in heating subsidies. To get around the proposed cut, New York and Connecticut will simply raise federal heating subsidies for all the affected households to just barely meet the threshold.

In New York alone, which was originally expected to absorb up to 30% of the Farm Bill's food stamp cuts, that means nearly 300,000 households will get to keep an average $127 per month in benefits which they would have otherwise lost. Food Bank For New York City President Margarette Purvis, who also chairs Gov. Andrew Cuomo's Anti-Hunger Task Force, said she was ecstatic over the news.

"It's a huge deal," she said. "It's a huge deal. This Farm Bill cut has been our nightmare."

Before the passage of the Farm Bill, emergency food services in New York and around the country had already been grappling with historic levels of hunger, precipitated in part by a $5 billion across-the-board cut to food stamp benefits that went into effect on Nov. 1. Adding the Farm Bill cuts to that equation, said Purvis, "would have taken us from being basically devastated ... to being decimated."

Cuomo and Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy were able to prevent this year's round of food stamp cuts because of a recent increase in the amount of money their states receive from LIHEAP, the federal heating subsidy program. Gov. Deval Patrick of Massachusetts and Gov. Peter Shumlin of Vermont may soon follow their lead.

But those are only four governors at most, and the Farm Bill cuts are expected to reduce food stamp benefits in fifteen states, plus Washington, D.C. Furthermore, while Malloy and Cuomo have been able to prevent benefits from going down in 2014, nobody is making any guarantees about the following year.

"If we and one or two other states manage to fix this temporarily, it makes this marginally less horrible," said New York City Coalition Against Hunger executive director Joel Berg. "But it's still horrible."

As a result, the battle to mitigate the damage wrought by the Farm Bill continues on the federal level. Last week, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., Rep. James McGovern, D-Mass., and 15 other members of Congress co-signed a letter urging USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack to delay the food stamp cuts long enough for their respective states to formulate a response. The letter has not yet received a response, according to a Gillibrand spokesperson.