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Farm Bill Maintains SNAP, Contains Provisions for Maple, Honey, and Organics

Jennifer Mitchell/Maine Public
Lyle Merrifield checks his sap lines during the 2016 sugaring season.

Poverty relief organizations in Maine say they are relieved that the 2018 US Farm Bill has passed with the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, intact.

The $867-billion dollar omnibus bill passed this week with strong bipartisan support in both chambers, but not before a tense year of negotiations, including a House version of the bill that would have cut SNAP and imposed work requirements, potentially reducing or ending food benefits for some 2-million recipients.

"We absolutely needed this legislation to come through," says Director of Advocacy for Preble Street, Heather Zimmerman. Zimmerman says their nonprofit organization served about 600-thousand meals to hungry Mainers last year. "Quite simply we are already stretched to capacity. We cannot fill the gap if government programs are eroded."

"In the hunger relief sector we know that SNAP is vitally important," says Clara McConnell, director of public affairs at Good Shepherd Food Bank, which provided about 25 million meals last year, "and if it were to be cut the charities would not be able to make up for all those cuts," she says.

Zimmerman, with Preble Street, says such charitable efforts only answer about 5% of the need across the US.  Both McConnell and Zimmerman say they'd like to see expanded access to food programs in future bills, at both the state and federal level, but they are grateful that SNAP remains unchanged for now.

The 2018 Farm Bill also contains a provision that's being welcomed by Maine maple and honey producers. It essentially exempts those industries, and other single-ingredient sweeteners, from having to label their products as containing 'added sugars'.

"You know, you'd think something like that wouldn't be a big job to reverse a decision on, but as many things in government, it took a lot of effort from a lot of people," says Lyle Merrifield, president of the Maine Maple Producers' Association. 

Merrifield, like others in the honey, maple, and agave syrup industries, was exasperated by the proposed Food and Drug Administration labeling rule, which has since been walked back, but he says it has reminded him of a couple of things. Both maple and honey producers need to better educate the public about their products, he says, and the industries need to pay more attention to what goes on in Washington.

"We're sure similar things to this will be coming down the road in the future, so we need to be more prepared to handle something like that when it happens," says Merrifield.

The exemption provision included in the final version is very similar to a bill sponsored earlier this year by Republican Senator Susan Collins, and co-sponsored by independent Senator Angus King.

Meanwhile, the FDA is planning to release a final version of its "added sugar" labeling requirements in early 2019, but has said that it addresses the concerns that have been raised.

Other changes to the US Farm bill affect organic agriculture. Some are being viewed as positive revisions, such as an increase in funding for tracking and research into organic agriculture, from $20-million, annually to $50-million, annually.

“Our coalition members are deeply disturbed, however, by two provisions that undercut the work of the National Organic Standards Board," says Abbey Youngblood, Executive Director of the National Organic Coalition.

Specifically, the four seats on the NOSB reserved for farmers can now be held by non-farmers, and Youngblood says the insertion of  "confusing language" on how votes will be carried out regarding the use of synthetic materials, is also troubling. She says that could make it easier for harmful materials to be included in certified organic farming.

The bill, which is the federal government's primary tool for managing the nation's food system, will be in effect for five years.

President Donald Trump is expected to sign the bill into law in the coming week.