It was the debate over funding for food stamps that delayed the federal farm bill. But another, less controversial program has become collateral damage.
The Senior FarmShare program — which last year provided more than 17,000 seniors each with $50 worth of farmers market vouchers, and more than 100 farmers with reliable income — is in a holding pattern, as the federal government works through the farm bill and decides how much funding is coming to Maine.
That’s thousands of low-income seniors waiting to hear if they get a little extra money for food, and about 120 farmers wondering if they’ll receive the additional income, all as a result of more than two years of partisan stalemate that ultimately ended in a compromise that should have been reached much earlier.
The last farm bill, passed in 2008, expired in 2012. Unable to reach an agreement, Congress extended that plan for a year, to the end of 2013.
By last fall, the Republican-controlled House had passed a bill cutting food stamps by almost $40 billion over 10 years. The version out of the Democrat-controlled Senate cut about $4 billion.
The final version, passed after a few more months of unnecessary debate and posturing, landed on a decrease of about $8 billion.
The cut to food stamps was a hit to the country’s social safety net, but it had been clear for some time that a compromise was necessary to move the bill forward in a split Congress. The impact of that compromise taking so long is now being felt.
Last year, FarmShare, which gives a $50 voucher to each income-eligible senior, distributed about $890,000 to about 118 farmers, down from more than $1 million to 130 farmers the year before. But the state cannot begin distributing the vouchers to participating farms — which then sign up the seniors — until funding levels are known.
State officials said they should be able to administer the program along its regular schedule as long as they can move forward this week. But that leaves the seniors, and the farmers, hanging in the meantime.
That means seniors like Judy Poulin of Fairfield, who uses FarmShare to supplement the food she buys on her $9,000-per-year income, have one more thing to worry about. Same for the small farmers who have come to rely on the FarmShare funding during the financially dry spring.
This shows how the bickering in big-stage politics affects everyday life, and gives lawmakers one more reason to look for compromise.