by Mary Zaki
The 2018 Farm Bill (i.e., Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018) has now been signed into law as of December 20th. We will be providing a breakdown of the most pertinent changes in some of the Titles contained in this Farm Bill. Below is a summary of major changes in the Nutrition Title of the Farm Bill as well as an update on the just proposed rule by the USDA concerning work requirement waivers for SNAP households. Highlighted topics include work requirement changes for SNAP households, online redemption of SNAP benefits, changes in SNAP-Ed reporting procedures, funding changes for programs that increase food access, new programs and grants to motivate healthier eating, and a new initiative to provide data for researchers.
Moves to Decrease Number of Waivers for SNAP Work Requirements
The most contentious proposal in the Nutrition Title to expand Able Bodied without Dependents (ABAWD) work requirements to individuals between the ages of 50 and 60 years and to households with children over 6 years old did not make the final cut of the Farm Bill. Currently ABAWDs must work 20 hours a week, participate in employment and training programs for at least 20 hours per week or participate in a state's "workfare" program to receive SNAP benefits beyond 3 months in a 36-month period. States can apply to exempt ABAWD individuals from these requirements if they live in areas with unemployment rates that are over 10% or that do not have a sufficient number of jobs to provide employment. States can also provide exemptions to 15% of ABAWDs that are not exempted otherwise and do not live in exempted areas.
The 2018 Farm Bill makes two changes that decrease flexibility of states to provide waivers for work requirements. First, states must now obtain support from their governors to receive geographic waivers. Second, the bill decreases the number of non-geographic waivers from 15% to 12% of the non-exempt ABAWD population starting in fiscal year 2020. Currently states are not actually using all earned 15% waivers. However, they have historically done so in times of economic downturns.
Along with these changes, the USDA has proposed a rule on the same day as the Farm Bill signing that would decrease the number of waivers by eliminating statewide waiver approvals when substate unemployment data is available, prohibiting states from grouping areas that are not economically tied when requesting waivers, limiting waiver duration to one year or less, limiting other waiver durations to the fiscal year of approval, eliminating the carryover and accumulation of waivers, and putting an unemployment rate floor on geographic waivers that are based on relative unemployment rates compared to national averages. USDA estimates that the rule change will cause 1,132,500 ABAWD individuals to be newly subject to work requirements in fiscal year 2020 and that two-thirds of them (755,000) will fail to meet requirements. Comments on this rule will be received for 60 days. A finalized rule is proposed to go into effect on October 1, 2019.
New Opportunities to Fulfill SNAP Work Requirements
The Farm Bill has expanded its definition of what counts as an Employment and Training (E&T) program (that can fulfill SNAP work requirements) to include supervised job searches, apprenticeships, subsidized employment, and any E&T pilot activities that are determined effective at increasing employment or earnings for participants. Unsupervised job searches can partially meet work requirements. E&T programs sponsored by Department of Labor and Department of Veterans Affairs that target veterans will also count. The Farm Bill will allow programs that provide training, skills, or experience run by private employers or non-profit organizations to be certified as "workforce programs," providing a non-governmental E&T option. State E&T programs must now include a case management component, including, but not limited to, comprehensive intake assessments, individualized service plans, progress monitoring, or coordination with service providers. Finally, funding for E&T programs is increased from $90 million to $103.9 million for each fiscal year.
SNAP Benefit changes
The House bill proposed a slew of changes that could have decreased SNAP eligibility and benefits (e.g., dropping categorical eligibility and increasing amount of received energy assistance to qualify for the Standard Utility Allowance) or increased SNAP eligibility and benefits (e.g., increasing value of allowable assets, increasing earned income deduction). None of these made it to the final bill except for requiring a deduction of $143 for homeless households who are not receiving free housing and not claiming an excess shelter expense deduction. Such a deduction would go into the calculation of net income, increasing the monthly SNAP benefit amount.
SNAP Technological Updates and Reevaluations
The Farm Bill includes two big technology updates that gives SNAP households greater flexibility in using their benefits. First, the Farm Bill will now permit online acceptance of SNAP benefits nationwide pending the completion of demonstrations. Second, it authorizes the redemption of SNAP benefits via mobile technologies pending the completion of demonstrations. Farmers who sell products at farmers markets or via direct marketing also have greater flexibility in accepting SNAP benefits. The Farm Bill now allows a farmers market or direct marketing farmer to operate a point of sale device at more than one location if certain requirements are met. Finally, the Farm Bill mandates that the Thrifty Food Plan, which SNAP benefit amounts are based on, be reevaluated at 5-year intervals so that the composition of the Thrifty Food Plan basket better reflects current consumption patterns and dietary guidelines.
Programs to Increase Food Access
The Farm Bill makes changes that both decrease and increase funding to various programs aimed at increasing food access. For example, technology modernization grants that previously funded projects that decrease SNAP fraud or improve access to SNAP for eligible households dropped the latter objective in this Farm Bill. The Farm Bill also lowers the maximum total amount of funding for Assistance for community food projects grants from $9 million annually to $5 million annually. On the other hand, the Farm Bill increases the amount of commodities purchased for the Emergency Food Assistance Program by approximately $8 to $20 million for each fiscal year and provides $4 million per year for State agencies to partner with emergency feeding organizations to establish projects to harvest, process, package or transport commodities that are donated by agricultural producers, processors, or distributors. The Farm Bill also sanctions 10 pilot projects to support public-private partnerships that address food insecurity and poverty. Finally, the Farm Bill requires the federal government pay at least 80 percent of the administrative and distribution costs for the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations, allows for a waiver of the rest of the share of costs if tribal organization face a great burden to cover it, allows appropriated funds for a fiscal year for the program to remain available for two fiscal years and establishes a demonstration project for tribal organizations to enter into a self determination contract to purchase agricultural commodities for the program.
SNAP-Ed and EFNEP Coordination
The Farm Bill includes changes to increase evaluation of and coordination between nutrition education programs. State SNAP-Ed programs will be required to establish an electronic reporting system that will be used to both evaluate projects and account for administrative costs. They must also establish an information clearinghouse to share best practices. The Farm Bill requires greater coordination between SNAP-Ed, the Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP) and the Director of NIFA. State SNAP-Ed programs will be required to produce an annual report to the Secretary of the USDA as well as an annual report to Congress that would include information on the degree of coordination between SNAP-Ed, EFNEP, and other USDA nutrition education programs.
Incentives for Healthier Eating
The Farm bill includes several measures aimed at promoting healthier eating through the use of financial incentives. The Farm Bill specifies that the Secretary of the USDA shall clarify the process for retailers to obtain waivers to offer incentives to households who use SNAP benefits to purchase fruits, vegetables, whole grains, dairy or other foods recommended by dietary guidelines. The Farm Bill also explicitly authorizes projects that incentivize the purchase of fluid milk by SNAP households. The Farm Bill establishes permanent funding and authority for the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive (FINI) program and renames it “The Gus Schumacher Nutrition Incentive Program.” Finally, the Farm Bill establishes a produce prescription program through partnership with healthcare providers. The program aims to improve the dietary health of low-income individuals who are suffering from or are at-risk to develop diet-related health conditions by increasing their consumption of fruits and vegetables.
Establishment of State Data Sets for Researchers
The Farm Bill requires that states create longitudinal databases for researchers to better evaluate participation in the SNAP program. Databases are to include household demographic characteristics, income and financial resources, employment status, household circumstances such as deductible expenses, and the monthly SNAP benefit amount.