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The U.S. farm bill is up for renewal this year. Here's what's at stake

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

A long to-do list for lawmakers this year, and on that list is passing the 2023 Farm Bill. It's more than just money for farmers. It's also a bill about food stamps, disaster relief and climate change. NPR's Ximena Bustillo joins us now.

Ximena, thanks so much for being with us.

XIMENA BUSTILLO, BYLINE: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: The Farm Bill comes up for renewal every five years. The current version was passed in 2018. Remind us what this legislation's all about.

BUSTILLO: Yeah. Well, the bill is made up of 12 titles, and it's a broad range of items, as you mentioned. Money can go towards research, colleges, rural development like broadband-expansion type things. Here's Dennis Nuxoll, vice president of government affairs at Western Growers, which is a farmer advocacy group.

DENNIS NUXOLL: You can live in a rural community and be a librarian in a small, rural town, and there are programs that your small town, because it's in a rural community - access to build the library and build, you know, some of the infrastructure of your town. And you - you're the librarian. You don't actually grow anything. You're not a farmer.

BUSTILLO: As you said, climate is another top item. Lawmakers want to address how disaster relief programs are structured. Right now Congress has to approve money as needed, and it can be years before farmers see aid after floods, droughts and fires. They also want to see how to get farmers involved in conservation programs. But perhaps the biggest, most popular and most contentious part of the Farm Bill is the nutrition title. This is the part of the bill that deals with nutrition assistance programs like food stamps. This can be a bit confusing because nutrition assistance programs are also funded through regular budget processes. But the Farm Bill is a time when lawmakers can change the rules of the program. So who qualifies and why?

SIMON: What do you anticipate would be discussed when it gets to that part?

BUSTILLO: Yeah. The flexibilities allowed during the pandemic are slowly coming to an end, and it's likely that we'll see more debate on who should qualify for nutrition assistance programs, work requirements and other rules expanding or limiting access. One group looking to make changes is the Center for Employment Opportunities. They are a nonprofit that provides training to formerly incarcerated individuals. Part of their funding comes from a program called SNAP Employment and Training. This allows SNAP recipients to get clothing allowance, transportation and child care as they find jobs.

I caught up with Kia Hansard, program director at CEO. She said that the current SNAP rules mean that any income received through the program counts as income for SNAP eligibility.

KIA HANSARD: They're then having to choose between, am I going to be able to feed myself today, or should I continue this training program? And we don't ever want our participants to have to make that choice.

BUSTILLO: House Agriculture Committee ranking member GT Thompson held a listening session earlier this month, where Hansard testified. And he and other lawmakers agreed that this was something they wanted to look at. But this is also a title ripe for party splits. Some conservatives have proposed removing the nutrition title from the Farm Bill altogether, a move that has already been rejected by Thompson and other Republicans.

SIMON: But let me ask you about party splits. Will we see a bill pass on time?

BUSTILLO: Great question. Lawmakers are running up against the Sep. 30 deadline. If they want to pass it on time, they should have something written to vote on before the summer, which all might seem like a lifetime away. But writing big bills takes months, if not years. Then it just depends on if certain factions, like the Freedom or Progressive Caucuses, choose to oppose the bill for any particular reason. For now lawmakers leading negotiations on the agriculture committees tell me they aren't incredibly worried about party splits and instead are more focused on negotiating around regional needs.

SIMON: Thanks so much. NPR's Ximena Bustillo.

BUSTILLO: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
Ximena Bustillo
Ximena Bustillo is a multi-platform reporter at NPR covering politics out of the White House and Congress on air and in print.

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