On the same day President-elect Joe Biden urged Congress to pass additional coronavirus relief, Ohio Rep. Marcia Fudge said on Monday “it is long past time to increase SNAP benefits by 15 percent” and devote additional funds to other public nutrition programs. Fudge, a leading nutrition advocate in Congress, is among possible Biden nominees for agriculture secretary.
A 15 percent increase in food stamps is among the elements of the $3 trillion coronavirus bill that was passed by the House last summer. Biden cited the bill when asked during a news conference what could be done quickly to reduce unemployment and ease economic turmoil. “What I would do is pass the HEROES Act,” said Biden, putting the onus on the Republican-run Senate to act.
“Today, hunger is reaching historic highs,” said Fudge on social media. “It is long past time to increase SNAP benefits by 15 percent and provide additional funding for nutrition programs that put food on the table.”
Fudge would be the first Black woman agriculture secretary if Biden chose her. The former mayor of Warrensville Heights, Ohio, Fudge won election to her eighth term on Nov 3.
Meanwhile, an array of farm, environmental. animal welfare and consumer groups signed a letter of opposition to former North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, the most prominently mentioned potential nominee for agriculture secretary. They hoped to have 100 signatures on the letter by Tuesday. Kari Hamerschlag of Friends of the Earth, one of the groups organizing the letter, said Heitkamp has supported agribusiness and fossil fuels so she is “is the wrong person to steer today’s agriculture away from energy intensive industrial monoculture and factory farming.”
“Personnel is policy, and Heitkamp would undermine any progress President Biden might hope to make” on climate change, said Krissy Kasserman of Food and Water Watch, another of the core signatories of the letter.
North Dakota is one of the two largest wheat-growing states as well as being an oil producer. After losing re-election in 2018, Heitkamp was a founder of the One Country Project to improve the standing of the Democratic Party in rural America, which twice voted by a 2-to-1 margin for President Trump.
Nutrition programs account for two-thirds of USDA outlays but agricultural supports often are the dominant topic of discussion for the department’s activities, perhaps because USDA has thousands of local offices to deal directly with farmers and ranchers. It writes the rules for nutrition programs such as SNAP and WIC but state agencies are the contact point for recipients.
Traditionally, rural lawmakers form the membership of the Senate and House Agriculture committees. Fudge is a rare urban member of the House panel, along with fellow Democrats Jim McGovern of Massachusetts and Alma Adams of North Carolina. There are 108 farms in Fudge’s district in northeastern Ohio, according to the 2017 Census of Agriculture. Adams and McGovern, who chairs the House Rules Committee, are anti-hunger advocates like Fudge, who chairs the subcommittee on nutrition.
Several other people were in the mix, or the conversational mix at a minimum, for agriculture secretary. Politico said Montana Gov. Steve Bullock has been mentioned following his loss in a Senate race and so has departing House Agriculture chairman Collin Peterson.
Fudge was an outspoken critic of the $4.5 billion Farmers to Families Food Box program, the Trump administration’s response to hunger during the pandemic. “This is just fraught with waste, fraud and abuse,” she said during a July subcommittee hearing. “We have no idea what you are doing. Nor do you, because you can’t answer the questions.” The USDA official overseeing the program, which was run by contractors, said the giveaway program went into operation without a formula to assure aid was distributed fairly across the country.
In an interview, Fudge told the news site cleveland.com that the food box was a poor use of federal money and it would make more sense to put more money into SNAP. If she became agriculture secretary, she said she would review the effectiveness of USDA programs, including SNAP, and emphasize issues such as climate change and clean water. “I’ve worked on enough farm bill, I think, to put my experience against almost anybody’s,” she told the news site.
A consequence of the rural preference for Republican candidates is that Democrats represent a relative handful of the approximately six dozen rural House districts. The imbalance could leave farmers, and rural Americans, without advocates when legislation is written. According to Mary Kay Thatcher, who had a long career as a farm lobbyist, “If we don’t have bipartisan support, we’re up a creek without them,” reported Feedstuffs.