Once every five years, Congress passes a new farm bill. Here’s why you should care.

Activists urge lawmakers to reject proposed cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program in the Farm Bill on Monday, May 7, 2018. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call) (CQ Roll Call via AP Images)

The farm bill is a major piece of legislation passed every five years. If you’re not a farmer, why should you care? There are many reasons. The legislation shapes U.S. policy on a broad range of topics, including agricultural research, crop subsidies, nutrition standards, and food assistance programs for low-income families.

“The farm bill is not just for farmers,” said Christopher Bosso, a food policy expert and public policy professor at Northeastern. “It shapes our food system in a way that we often don’t appreciate.”

The House passed its version of the farm bill by a narrow two vote margin. All of the “yes” votes came from Republicans. Now, the bill heads to the Senate, which will vote on its own version sometime in early July. Then the two versions will need to be combined before the final farm bill moves to President Donald Trump for signing.

Here, Bosso explains the importance of the farm bill and how its passing could impact the country.

What has been the most controversial piece of the proposed farm bill this time around?

The biggest issue has focused on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, which was formerly called food stamps. It’s the largest chunk of the farm bill in terms of actual spending. The big fight between Democrats and Republicans has been over stricter work requirements for SNAP recipients.

SNAP is an entitlement program, meaning you get benefits only if you’re entitled to them based on your income and your assets. About 40 percent of SNAP recipients are children. Other SNAP recipients include elderly people and people with disabilities.  A relatively small portion of recipients are people who are able-bodied but not working. It could be that they’re single mothers with kids who would have to find daycare. There are a lot of complicated issues here.

This is a controversial issue because Democrats suspect that what conservatives really want to do is kick people off this benefit entirely. Democrats also don’t think states have the capacity to provide either the training programs or the jobs for people on SNAP. There are a lot of things wrapped up into this debate. It’s really an ideological debate about welfare, as opposed to a debate about nutrition.

Democrats see any attack on SNAP as essentially an attack on people with low-income, and they refuse to go along with it.

Why is SNAP included in the farm bill? What does it have to do with agriculture?

SNAP is in the farm bill because people in government who represent farmers know they don’t have the votes to pass a farm bill unless they include something for urban America. Traditionally, that’s been nutrition programs.

The fact is that most of us live in urban and suburban America now. We don’t live in farm areas. Why would a person in Congress vote for the farm bill unless it did something for his or her constituents? What’s in it for anybody in a city? If you’re living in Boston, the farm bill is irrelevant to you, unless it includes something that attends to your needs.

That’s why the farm bill includes stuff that urban America cares about: nutrition programs, farmers market support, organic regulations, research, incentives for small farmers and young farmers. They’ve done more and more to include things that are relevant to urban America, knowing full well that if they don’t, they’re not going to get the votes to benefits the big agricultural operations in the Midwest.

It’s essentially politics. You’ve got to get the votes.

The farm bill appears to be particularly contentious this year. Has that always been the case?

There are always conflicts. Most of the conflicts in the old days were really fights between commodity programs. What was good for corn was not good for cotton, or what was good for sugar wasn’t necessarily good for soybeans. It was always the case that the midwestern Republicans who represented corn and pork were always against the southern Democrats who represented sugar, cotton, and peanuts.

It used to also be the case that there were a lot of rural Democrats in Congress, and there aren’t anymore. Most rural conservative Democrats got replaced by rural conservative Republicans. As the parties have sorted themselves out by demography and have become more polarized, Democrats typically represent coastal, urban areas—especially metropolitan areas. Republicans represent primarily rural spaces in the Midwest and the South. The two parties really represent different constituencies. As a result, farm bill politics have gotten more ideological and more partisan, because of the nature of how the parties have evolved.

Do you think the farm bill will pass with the new work requirements for SNAP recipients?

No. The Senate will take those out. Here’s my prediction: They’ll leave in some pilot programs that will create incentives for some states to experiment with some of these work requirements, just to see what might happen. But there’s no way this is going to pass the Senate with the same work requirements that the House bill contains.

In order to get things passed in the Senate, you need 60 votes. There is enough Democratic leverage in the Senate to block that.