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Ryan Belgarde of Fargo said he doubts he would still be around today without the food stamp program. He spoke Thursday at the Depot on Main Street in downtown Fargo. Barry Amundson / Forum News Service

Farm, hunger relief groups urge passage of Senate farm bill

FARGO—Ricky Belgarde of Fargo has epilepsy that prevents him from working and driving and has been collecting food stamps most of his life.

He joined North Dakota farm and hunger relief leaders at a news conference Thursday, June 14, to urge passage of the U.S. Senate version of the farm bill that they say protects the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program that helps feed about 54,000 residents of the state.

The leaders said the bipartisan Senate bill is preferable to the U.S. House version which they say would cut 2 million Americans off the nutrition program with increased regulations and rules, potentially increasing hunger in the state and nationwide.

Belgarde said he didn't think he would have lived as long as he has without the SNAP program.

"On my income, I just can't make it otherwise," he said.

Steve Sellent, CEO of the Great Plains Food Bank, the largest hunger relief operation in the state, said two-thirds of the people on SNAP are children, elderly or disabled.

"SNAP needs to be strengthened rather than see the cuts in the House bill," Sellent said.

The CEO said the food bank with 312 sites across the state is already "stressed to the limit each day" with still to many people in the state going hungry.

"We applaud the Senate bill which is a shining example of working across the aisle," Sellent said of the bipartisanship. The SNAP program accounts for about 80 percent of the farm bill cost.

Sellent and North Dakota Farmers Union President Mark Watne also said many people don't realize that able-bodied food stamp recipients without dependents already are required to work 20 hours a week, although there are some exceptions. Otherwise, they are required to be in job training programs.

They said the House version would tighten work reporting requirements that would create more paperwork and also change rules for low-income people who are eligible.

What the leaders don't want is a big fight over SNAP as it moves ahead this summer in both chambers with a full Senate vote coming as soon as next week and another House vote also possible before the Fourth of July after the first bill was defeated in May.

Watne said a farm bill is sorely needed before the current bill expires Sept. 30, as farm income is projected to drop another 30 percent this year.

"Cutting SNAP benefits to the 1 in 14 North Dakotans currently receiving them won't address the farm income crisis," he said. "We need a strong crop insurance program and safety net for family farmers and ranchers. And that safety net needs to be equally strong for the vulnerable among us."

In showing statistics from North Dakota, the leaders said nearly half of SNAP recipients are children, 28 percent are seniors and the program keeps 14,000 people out of poverty. Other statistics noted that SNAP is linked with reduced health-care costs, the average duration of a recipient is eight months, the median annual income of recipients is about $17,000 and 79 percent of adults receiving SNAP are working, looking for work or can't work due to a disability.

As for economic benefits to the state, $80 million is pumped into the state through the program.