By Ty Johnson | The Brownsville Herald
U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela was in Brownsville Tuesday at the Ministerio De Restauracion y Poder to discuss developments in Washington, D.C., which could lead to direct impacts on the nation’s Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program.
Vela sits on the U.S. House Committee on Agriculture, which this month approved a farm bill that calls for $20 billion in cuts to SNAP, the nation’s food stamp program.
Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Okla., the chairman of the committee, touted the bill’s cost-saving measures in a release. The bill cuts funding overall by $40 billion.
Vela, a Democrat representing Texas’ 34th Congressional District, voted against the bill, which passed 36-10 and will be debated before the House later this summer, citing the fact that half of those estimated savings would come from the proposed SNAP reform. It would be the first such reform of SNAP since the Welfare Reform Act of 1996.
Vela was in town for a press conference where he and the chief executive officers of both the Texas Food Bank Network and the Food Bank of the Rio Grande Valley discussed the impact of cuts and the importance of the SNAP benefits to residents of the Valley and Cameron County.
Cameron County has more than 131,000 SNAP benefactors, although 24 percent of those eligible based on income do not receive the benefits, meaning an annual loss of $100 million in economic activity.
The bill, as approved by committee, prevents the U.S. Department of Agriculture from advertising the SNAP program and, using Emergency Food Assistance Program resources, offers support to food banks struggling to provide for needy families.
The urge to shift the feeding of the hungry to private organizations, like churches and food pantries, is what Vela said is leading many in Washington to reduce SNAP funding.
“The problem in the House is that there are some people who don’t think we should even fund SNAP,” he told the dozen or so people gathered at the ministry.
But the need for both programs was evident following testimonials from Brownsville residents who depend on SNAP benefits and food pantries to make ends meet while working.
Terri Drefke, CEO of the RGV Food Bank, said she’s grateful to Vela, who she described as being receptive to learning about the impacts cuts to social programs have on his constituents throughout his first term in Congress.
Speaking after the conference, Vela said knowing who SNAP supports led him to oppose the bill.
“When you see the direct impact of a $20 billion cut for nutrition for children and the elderly and realize you’re literally making it harder for children and the elderly to eat, (that is why) I chose to fight those cuts,” Vela said, citing statistics that show 76 percent of Texans receiving SNAP benefits are children or the elderly.
Vela said he understood that cuts would need to be made, but noted that the Democrat-controlled Senate had put forth a plan which would cut SNAP by only $4 billion.
Farm bills, like the one proposed, contain measures concerning subsidies, food and nutrition, conservation and trade, and are generally approved each five years. The current farm bill — the Food, Conservation and Energy Act of 2008 — will expire in September.
Vela said it’s still not certain what version of the bill will end up coming out of the House, but he said there will likely be a compromise made when the House and Senate meet in conference committee to discuss the bill, meaning the actual cuts will likely be somewhere between the $4 billion and $20 billion suggestions.
“We’ll just have to wait and see,” he said, noting that it was possible that the bill he voted on may not leave the House. “It’s important to have a stable farm policy. Hopefully at the end of the day we’ll have a five-year bill with cuts that are not so drastic to the tune of $20 billion.”