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Farm bill has far-reaching roots here - Representatives hope for bigger subsides for food stamp program and pantries

Brooklynites are hoping for higher subsidies for food stamps, food pantries and other emergency programs after the House of Representatives passed the comprehensive Farm Bill last week.

“Farm policy is critically important for big cities like New York,” said Rep. Nydia Velazquez, whose district includes parts of North Brooklyn. “This legislation strengthens programs that provide healthy snacks in our schools, makes farmers markets more accessible to seniors and low-income consumers in urban communities, and improves education about the importance of fresh fruits and vegetables. There is no better public health investment ensuring that all Americans can eat healthy meals regardless of their income level.”

The Farm Bill, which covers a variety of farm and food subsidies as well as spending for nutritional and emergency food programs, in its current version, provides for increases in the nutrition title of the bill from $140 million to $250 million nationwide, which is indexed to inflation. The proposed changes, including an increase in the minimum benefit for families to $14 a month, will likely ease the burden of families who have been utilizing emergency food programs and absorbing the rising costs of transportation and food.

Hunger advocates, such as Aine Duggan, VP of Governmental Affairs at the Food Bank of New York, remain cautious in evaluating how helpful the program will be.

“Locally in New York, the entire hunger community will agree is getting people who are eligible for the program but who are not enrolled to get them to participate in the food stamps,” Duggan said. “We need to make sure there is local outreach money available so we can draw down the federal dollars to help the local economy.”

Two-thirds of the Farm Bill is allocated towards funding the country’s nutritional title, which includes entitlements and commodities. Entitlements are the actual funding for emergency food programs, such as food stamps, while commodities include surplus food that is donated to organizations such as the Food Bank and then find their way to food pantries around the city.

In New York City, there have been huge cutbacks in commodities in the past few years. According to Duggan, the Food Bank has lost more than twelve million pounds of food due to reductions in funding and bonus commodities.

“It won’t get us off goal, but it will put us back where we were, in terms of federal food,” Duggan said. “We still have to work to make sure that city and state resources are increasing to meet the increase in local demand.”

In the past few years, the number of New York City residents relying on emergency food programs (EFPs) has swollen to 1.3 million people in 2006 from 1 million in 2004. In Brooklyn, EFPs provide food to 509,000 people annually, a 28 percent increase since 2004.

At the Full Gospel Tabernacle food pantry (1173 Nostrand Avenue) in Central Brooklyn, Reverend Melody Samuels worries about finding additional funding to supplement the growing need of her pantry, which the Farm Bill may not be able to fully cover.

“The fact is if it has passed, it will be a tremendous blessing and it will help central Brooklyn a whole lot,” Samuels said. “We will still going to have a tough time because we are still seeing so many people coming in.”

Last month alone, Samuels’ pantry served 1,400 additional people, many from neighborhoods beyond Central Brooklyn. Normally, Full Gospel serves about 6,000 people per month. Each family is allotted one visit per month, where they can pick up nine meals.

While the particulars of the bill are still being worked out, Samuels, Duggan and other advocates want a speedy resolution to a bill that has dragged through Congress for much of the year.

“Maybe we can all be sensible to get this bill passed and get more food on the table,” Duggan said. “That’s the hope.”

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