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In a rare display of bipartisanship, the House of Representatives approved a massive five-year farm bill yesterday, costing nearly half a trillion dollars. The Senate is expected to pass it next week. The bill includes some reductions in food stamps, nearly a billion dollars a year. That's far less than many Republicans had wanted. But as NPR's Richard Gonzales reports, it's enough to worry some Democrats and many food stamp recipients.
RICHARD GONZALES, BYLINE: At the Downs Memorial United Methodist Church in north Oakland, Wednesdays are reserved for anyone who needs a free lunch and a bag of produce. About 250 hot lunches are being served by smiling volunteers before the afternoon is over. The recipients are poor, unemployed, people on the margins like Raymond Garza.
RAYMOND GARZA: I'm an ex-plumber. I'm actually disabled and I'm homeless.
GONZALES: At 52, Garza is a fireplug of a man. He says when times were good, he earned $80,000 a year. But a few years back, he suffered a stroke and life has never been the same. Today, he lives in a trailer anywhere he can park on the street, and he's here because he's used up his $176 allotment in food stamps for January.
GARZA: Man, it's terrible. Every day I wake up, I'm struggling to eat. Now, I got my food stamps on the 10th. Today is the 29th. I got another 10 days before I can go buy some food again.
GONZALES: Garza saw his benefits cut back in November by about $30 a month when the food stamp program was reduced nationwide by $11 billion. Now, he may face another cut. The farm bill will reduce benefits for 850,000 households across the country, costing them about $90 a month. More than a third of those households are here in California. The cuts will come from closing a loophole used in 16 states and the District of Columbia known as Heat and Eat. Recipients get a token amount of federal heating help that they can turn into additional food stamp benefits. Allison Pratt at the Alameda County Community Food Bank says the impact is real.
ALLISON PRATT: So this is really a layering on of one cut after the other, and we really are concerned about how families are going to cope with these cuts.
GONZALES: Some advocates of the poor say the proposed cuts could have been worse. But a group of Democratic lawmakers say any cuts are inflicting pain on working families in favor of preserving some major subsidies to farmers. Here's Rep. Rosa DeLauro, a Connecticut Democrat.
REP. ROSA DELAURO: And if you vote for this bill, you will have to look them in the eye and tell them to go without food, that they have to endure hunger because we had to give more handouts to millionaires and to billionaires.
GONZALES: House Republicans originally wanted to cut food stamps by $40 billion over a decade, throwing almost 4 million people out of the program. As part of the compromise, the Department of Agriculture will be barred from advertising the availability of benefits. Pennsylvania Republican Frank Thompson supported the measure. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The congressman's name is Glenn - not Frank - Thompson.]
GLENN THOMPSON: We reform food stamps, and we do so through thoughtful, targeted changes, ensuring that those who truly need the assistance will receive it.
GONZALES: The food stamp cuts would take effect for new applicants in March pending Senate approval, and current recipients would see the reductions phased in between the summers of 2014 and 2015. Richard Gonzales, NPR News, San Francisco.
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