Every five to seven years, Congress passes a Farm Bill, a major piece of legislation that authorizes an array of issues ranging from conservation to rural development. Most pertinent to the American Public Human Services Association (APHSA), Title IV of the Farm Bill covers nutrition, which includes programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP). Title IV is the biggest and most talked-about component of the Farm Bill, historically accounting for about three-fourths of total spending.
Engaging Health and Human Services in Farm Bill Conversations
The process through which a Farm Bill is created is long and complex, bringing many key stakeholders into conversations with Congress long before the legislation is introduced on the House and Senate floors. Engaging in the development of the 2023 Farm Bill is currently one of APHSA’s top priorities, especially as it relates to key issues in SNAP rules, administration, and funding. Given its importance, APHSA brought me onto the policy team in February as a Bill Emerson National Hunger Fellow to support the development of our Farm Bill agenda. My fellowship previously placed me at the University of California Irvine to support the development of a SNAP-Ed and Outreach program targeted toward college students with food insecurities, which allowed me to come into this space with knowledge about how SNAP operates at the ground level.
Since coming into my role at APHSA, I have been leading policy planning sessions with health and human services leaders operating state SNAP programs as well as their program-specific staff, including SNAP E&T and SNAP-Ed. Our vision for these sessions was to gather intel about key priorities for the upcoming federal legislation. In fact, this process started long before I started my position at APHSA back in February. After the 2018 Farm Bill, health and human services agencies began to engage in the programs, demonstration projects, and grant opportunities that became authorized in this omnibus legislation, actively evaluating these newly authorized rules and programs. As a national membership organization representing state and local health and human services agencies, APHSA has been able to learn about the successes and roadblocks that leaders face in administering, overseeing, and aligning programs within their agencies. On top of lessons learned from the past Farm Bill, we have also learned about the barriers that health and human services agencies had to overcome in administering their programs in the face of a pandemic. The pandemic especially illuminated outdated or underdeveloped SNAP policies that, as research confirms, should be modernized to be resilient in times of crisis.
The Farm Bill Policy Planning Process
Using knowledge from these previous discussions, APHSA was able to develop a set of policy focus areas that we identified as most pertinent to improving both administration of SNAP and the intended impact on participants of the program. Since then, those policy focus areas have been reevaluated, reworked, and reshaped by our members. From the beginning, APHSA’s goal has been to ensure that our Farm Bill recommendations are grounded in the needs and visions of our members’ agencies. Our policy planning has followed a six-step process that has engaged SNAP administrators and staff, the Hill, and FNS.
- The first step in this process began in March when we introduced our policy focus areas to our Executive Advisory Council (EAC), the governing body of our affinity group, the American Association of SNAP Directors (AASD), for feedback. We also created voluntary advisor roles to further engage EAC members in the development of APHSA’s policy agenda. As advisors, EAC members have been regularly contacted throughout the policy planning process to provide either written or verbal feedback to the APHSA team on several key policy focus areas.
- In March, I led a Farm Bill 101 informational session that I presented to our All-State network of AASD, which served as a refresher for many about the legislative process and key SNAP provisions from the Agricultural Improvement Act of 2018.
- In April, I led separate discussions with the AASD EAC to engage members in a visual mapping activity to unpack the group values that they hold to be most salient. From this interactive virtual session, we found that equity and reliability were their top core values. We also asked EAC members what policy components were of utmost importance and the majority agreed that equitable, responsive, and administratively efficient SNAP policies were of top priority. In this same session, we actively put these group values into action by creating a space for members to discuss key priorities like advancing equity in health and human services programs and developing a bipartisan voice to ensure nationwide representation.
- In May, I developed and led two other interactive planning sessions with our SNAP E&T and SNAP-Ed & Outreach workgroups to refine our policy recommendations for these specific SNAP programs. In both sessions, we developed a set of questions that workgroup members then actively worked through in breakout sessions. I utilized a collaborative virtual whiteboard where members could jot their ideas down using different interactive tools. After these sessions, I grouped common themes and ideas to develop a set of different policy priorities and recommendations for both SNAP E&T and SNAP-Ed.
- At our next EAC call in June, we brought these recommendations back to members for feedback and approval and used this feedback to continue refining. Throughout this process, we remained in contact with advisors and sought their input on an as-needed basis, ultimately forming a solid set of recommendations we presented at our July Leadership Council meeting.
Moving forward, APHSA will continue stakeholder engagement with our members, advisors, FNS, and the Hill to ensure our strategic plan is in line with issues in SNAP that are important to our members and most feasibly attainable given our political climate. Later this year, the goal is to publish a Farm Bill agenda and a series of public documents on our policy priorities. Stay tuned!
Lessons Learned as a First-Time Participant in the Policy Space
As I wrap up my time at APHSA, I reflect on everything I learned about the legislative process from leading these Farm Bill conversations and engaging in other key stakeholder conversations.
The first lesson I learned is that effective legislation is informed by the leaders that are actively doing work on the ground in their respective communities. The health and human services leaders I have had the chance to learn from give lawmakers and agencies the evaluation and feedback that they need to fix issues not addressed by previous Farm Bills. As long as stakeholders are given a place at the table, we are constantly working toward a more equitable and responsive SNAP program.
The second lesson I learned is the importance of balancing different perspectives and being strategic with navigating policies that may attract political tension. As a bipartisan membership organization, APHSA represents leaders from across the country, meaning that they also represent a wide variety of constituencies and ideologies. While a Restaurant Meals Program may have broad support in one state, it may be more challenging to operate in another. Therefore, APHSA must ensure that any recommendation we make is truly representative of our members’ needs and priorities. These considerations all play a role in deciding where APHSA's influence can make the most impact, which is eventually taken to the Hill as APHSA’s policy positions.
A key and final lesson I learned is the importance of weaving race equity into health and human services programs. If you’re in this line of work, developing a race equity mindset is only the first step to making programs more equitable and responsive to the needs of its participants. Data has shown that across social determinants of health and well-being, such as employment, health, and social supports, people of color are more likely to face structural barriers to receiving programmatic help. So, while having a race equity mindset is a great first step, mindfully turning frustration into action is what changes these systems of oppression. As an organization, we made sure to prioritize equity in our discussions by asking questions such as how to increase access to employment and training options and how to create more culturally competent SNAP education program delivery. Our members were especially frustrated with the practice of requiring state SNAP eligibility staff to record an applicant’s race and ethnicity using visual observation if the applicant chooses not to disclose the information themselves. This was originally being considered as a priority for the 2023 Farm Bill, but fortunately, FNS recently published a proposed rule to change this practice to be in line with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Also, in line with developing more equitable SNAP policies, FNS is conducting a study on language access policies and requirements for SNAP recipients with Limited English Proficiency (LEP) and is currently seeking written comments on the study.
Exciting Opportunities on the Horizon
The Farm Bill reauthorization process will continue through 2023 with Congressional hearings in Washington, DC, and across the country leading up to the development of the legislation. Excitedly, the White House will be hosting a Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health next week (September 28, 2022) for the first time in over 50 years, which APHSA released a set of recommendations for in July. This announcement reflects a federal agenda that prioritizes the hunger, nutrition, and health of millions of Americans and is a promising reflection of the direction that the 2023 Farm Bill will head in creating a more equitable food system and improving nutritional outcomes for all.