Senators overwhelmingly supported the the Agriculture, Reform and Jobs Act of 2012 Thursday in a preliminary floor vote even as one lawmaker decried as "unacceptable" a provision in the bill that would cut $4.5 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps, over 10 years.
The farm bill has been praised by many in the Senate as a common-sense solution to preserving the country's food security and encouraging market growth, but New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand has already offered an amendment to the bill that would keep SNAP off the chopping block.
"The farm bill is about the health of the agricultural industry; it's about the health of our families with nutritious food that is actually within reach of the children who need it," Gillibrand said on the floor Wednesday.
The Congressional Budget Office anticipates that the $4.5 billion in cuts will, on average, mean families needing assistance will receive $90 less a month for groceries. [Check out U.S. News Weekly: an insider's guide to politics and policy.]
"In this day and age, in a country as rich as America is, it is unacceptable and should not be tolerated and should certainly not be advocated for," Gillibrand said. "These kinds of cuts, they hurt children, they hurt families, they hurt seniors that are homebound, seniors that don't know where their next meal is going to come from...They were not the cause of the financial collapse. They were not the cause of this terrible economy, but we are asking them to bear the burden."
In order offset the costs of restoring $4.5 billion to SNAP, Gillibrand advocates cutting the amount the government pays to crop insurance companies from $1.3 billion to $825 million per year.
Gillibrand's amendment would also invest $500 million over 10 years in fresh veggies and fruit programs through SNAP and extend the power of the secretary of Agriculture so he or she can expand the emergency food assistance program in tough economic times. [Find out about the women of the Senate.]
Local SNAP providers across the country are watching the farm bill closely as more than 80 percent of the bill's funding is directed toward nutritional programs. There are more than 46 million people who rely on food stamps in the U.S.
"[Cutting SNAP funding] would be huge," says Joan Mackik, executive director of the Heartland Community Action Agency, which manages SNAP claims in rural Minnesota. "We've seen an increase in claims. Last year we had 2,500 more clients. The people we serve are on a very fixed budget and if they don't have assistance with groceries they need, they might go hungry."
But some say the SNAP cuts don't go far enough, and support a complete overhaul of the program.
"We have to reform food stamps," says Veronique De Rugy, a senior fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. "It is a program that has grown beyond reasonable measure. It consumers $80 billion that is received by 46 million Americans. We should have an overall look at the food stamp program, decide what the priorities should be. These are really minor cuts compared to the size of the problem with this particular program."
Gillibrand's amendment is just one of dozens that will be offered, but her office has pledged not to give up the fight on the issue.
The road ahead is long. Even if the amendment makes it into the Senate's version of the bill, the fight will continue as the House of Representatives develops its own draft of the farm bill.
"There is a lot of stigma attached to SNAP," says David DeGennaro, a legislative analyst at the Environmental Working Group."In the House of Representatives I think we are going to see a lot more money cut from SNAP than we did in the Senate."
Lauren Fox is a political reporter at U.S. News and World Report. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter at Foxreports.