In a rare display of bipartisanship, the House of Representatives Wednesday approved a massive five-year farm bill that costs nearly half a trillion dollars.
The bill includes some reductions to food stamps, known as the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, to the tune of nearly $1 billion a year. It's far less than what many Republicans had wanted. But the cuts are large enough to worry some Democrats and many food stamp recipients.
If it passes, the farm bill will reduce these SNAP benefits for 850,000 households across the country, more than a third of which are in California, costing them about $90 a month.
The cuts will come from closing a loophole used in 16 states and Washington, D.C. known as "heat and eat." Recipients get a token amount of federal heating help that they can turn into additional food stamp benefits.
Allison Pratt at the Alameda County Community Food Bank says the impact of this change to the program is real.
"This is really a layering on one cut after the other and we really are concerned about how families are going to cope with these cuts," she says.
The impact of the cuts are likely to be felt in places like the Downs Memorial United Methodist Church in North Oakland, Calif., where Wednesdays are reserved for anyone who needs a free lunch and a bag of produce.
About 250 hot lunches are served by smiling volunteers to poor, unemployed people on the margins, like Raymond Garza.
"I'm an ex-plumber, I'm actually disabled and I'm homeless," he says.
At 52, Garza is a fireplug of a man. He says when times were good, he earned $80,000 a year. But a few years back he suffered a stroke and life has never been the same.
Today he lives in a trailer. He comes to Downs Memorial because he's used up his $176 allotment in food stamps for January.
"And it's terrible. Everyday I wake up, I'm struggling to eat. I got my food stamps on the 10th. Today's the 29th. I got another 10 days before I can go buy some food again," says Garza.
The ex-plumber saw his benefits cut back in November by about $30 a month when the food stamp program was reduced nationwide by $11 billion. Now, he may face yet another cut.
Some advocates of the poor say the proposed cuts could have been worse. But a group of Democratic lawmakers say any cuts are inflicting pain on working families in favor of preserving some major subsidies to farmers.
"And if you vote for this bill you will have to look them in the eye and tell them to go without food, that they have to endure hunger because we had to give more handouts to millionaires and billionaires," says Democratic Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut.
House Republicans originally wanted to cut food stamps by $40 billion over a decade, throwing almost 4 million people out of the program. As part of the compromise, the U.S. Department of Agriculture will be barred from advertising the availability of benefits — a measure that Rep. Frank Thompson supported.
"We reform food stamps and we do so through thoughtful targeted changes ensuring that those who truly need the assistance will receive it," the Pennsylvania Republican says.
The food stamp cuts would take effect for new applicants in March, pending Senate approval. And current recipients would see the reductions phased in between the summers of 2014 and 2015.
The Senate is expected to pass the bill next week.
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