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Franken, McCollum push against proposed food stamp cuts in St. Paul Park stop

U.S. Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn) and Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn) met with Friends In Need Food Shelf Director Michelle Regath Tuesday during a tour of the St. Paul Park facility. The lawmakers are using their off time to advocate for fewer cuts to the federal food stamp program. (Bulletin photo by Emily Buss)

Families across Washington County soon could see a drastic reduction in their monthly food stamp allowance under a proposal that would cut billions from the federal supplemental nutrition assistance program.

In June, the Democrat-led U.S. Senate passed a bipartisan five-year farm bill to fund farm and nutrition programs for the poor. However, the Republican-led House has proposed to cut nutrition spending, including food stamps, by more than $21 billion over the next 10 years. Local officials said the cuts will impact nearly all of the more than 6,000 Washington County residents receiving food assistance through the federal SNAP initiative.

"There are going to be people hurting as a result of these cuts," said Dan Papin, director of Community Services for Washington County.

The county has 4,571 active cases, Papin said, with each case representing an average of 1.7 people. However, most cases, he added, include multiple children.

"Since 2008 after the economy tanked we saw a huge increase in the caseload," Papin said. "They continue to grow at a very high rate."

While the Senate passed a five-year farm bill, the House only passed a farm-program-only bill and plans to take up the nutrition portion later this month. The spending cuts would take effect on Nov. 1 and impact roughly one in 10 Minnesotans.

In an effort to garner support against the cuts to SNAP, U.S. Sen. Al Franken and Rep. Betty McCollum, both Democrats, toured the Friends in Need Food Shelf in St. Paul Park Tuesday and spoke with volunteers and community members. The food shelf has operated in St. Paul Park for more than 20 years, Director Michelle Rageth said, and helped more than 37,000 people in 2012, a number she said will increase this year.

Franken, a supporter of including a nutritional piece in the farm bill, said SNAP is "absolutely vital."

"There is no higher priority than making sure Minnesotans do not go hungry," Franken said at the food shelf. "We cannot be cutting this. We need a five-year farm bill that contains a robust SNAP program."

Reading from a letter submitted from a family in Cottage Grove who relies on SNAP, Jo Ann Tesar, community engagement liaison for the food support program of Ramsey and Washington counties, described the fear the family had if their assistance was cut.

"Families like this will have to sacrifice and decide between either medication or groceries," Tesar said. "It might mean the difference between having gas money to go to the doctor or staying sick. What will happen is that more people will struggle."

McCollum called the cuts "unacceptable" and said she wants to see the proposal brought before a House-Senate conference committee for a vote.

"We need to make sure we keep America healthy and provide proper nutrition to reduce long-term health concerns," said McCollum, whose 4th District includes part of St. Paul Park.

The House is only in session for nine days in September, giving representatives little time to finish their work before a Sept. 30 deadline. Many congressional leaders say that if no farm bill is passed by year's end, it is doubtful one will pass in 2014, when all House members and many senators are up for election.

However, Franken said Tuesday he is optimistic.

"It's so basic," Franken added. "We are the wealthiest country in the world. Our children, our elderly, our neighbors shouldn't be going hungry."

Forum News Service reporter Don Davis contributed to this story.