For an alternate viewpoint, see “Point: Cut Pork From the Farm Bill.

Each time Congress debates its priorities for the Farm Bill every five years, as it is doing this year, it faces legislation that profoundly affects the economic well-being of Americans nationwide.

From managing natural resources to rural development to funding labs and researchers at institutions across America, the Farm Bill is the most important tool the federal government has for ensuring that Americans have access to the food they need while also boosting economic development and growing the middle class.

The Farm Bill’s implications go well beyond farms. These policies made by Congress will show up at kitchen tables and green spaces across the country. For example, the Farm Bill is essential to supporting families at risk of going hungry, a category that encompasses millions of Americans in every community across the country. In 2021, 33.8 million people (5 million of whom were children) lived in food-insecure households, meaning that they didn’t have enough food to lead an active, healthy lifestyle at some point in the year. At a time of great need, more kids than ever could receive free meals at school during the pandemic.

However, many benefits have expired even though families continue to struggle with the cost of food. The Farm Bill is a crucial way to support hungry kids, whose hunger often makes learning harder and leads to less preparedness for jobs and the workforce.

The moral imperative of making sure everyone has enough to eat pays off in growing the economy. Food support affects local businesses, farmers and employment. In a 2015 analysis of Great Recession policies, economists found that aid to hungry families had the biggest “bang for the buck” of any federal spending. In other words, every $1 policymakers allocated to SNAP created $1.22 in gross domestic product. Families spend their dollars in their communities, and investments in growing the middle class pay off for everyone.

Recognizing this, in 2018, Republicans and Democrats agreed to use the Farm Bill to support hungry kids and their families, passing a bipartisan bill. The 2018 Farm Bill included a small increase to the extremely modest monthly food budget based on hunger benefits and a commitment to revisiting budget standards every five years. It’s crucial to protect that update to how benefits are calculated, especially given the COVID-era increase in food prices and the end of some pandemic supports.

Also during the 2018 Farm Bill debate, bipartisan majorities agreed to avoid significant changes to so-called “work requirements,” which are really just paperwork requirements that prevent people from receiving the benefits for which they otherwise qualify.

But in the name of “fiscal responsibility,” some lawmakers now seek to punish those who lose their jobs by taking away the meager food benefits that help families get groceries. Research overwhelmingly shows that work requirements don’t lead to better financial outcomes for participants; on the contrary, the additional bureaucracy is costly to taxpayers and ineffective in promoting employment.

The Farm Bill also has the potential to grow the economy in rural communities. For example, it can help rural communities navigate the programs and support that federal agencies provide to grow the economy and the rural middle class. Research and agricultural extension funding can better support land-grant universities, including Historically Black Colleges and Universities and Tribal Colleges and Universities, so that federal funding makes investments in research taking place across the country.

Rural communities are on the front lines of the need for conservation investment and climate-smart agriculture, and the Farm Bill can protect those investments.

Programs that conserve wildlife habitats, clean water and open space are oversubscribed, while more private landowners want to conserve their forests and pursue climate-smart practices. Privately owned forests in the United States account for more than half of all forested lands and supply nearly a third of the water we drink. Preserving and building on the funds available for conservation is crucial for green spaces and clean water.

The Farm Bill also funds existing, crucial rural development programs, providing a unique opportunity to align conservation and climate investments with rural housing, water and utility services, and small-business development.

Coordinating and aligning programs in rural communities doesn’t cost the government more money, but it does grow the economy in rural communities.

Ultimately, the Farm Bill is a bit of a misnomer — it’s the vehicle for funding and improving programs and services beyond farms. Rural communities, American families and our environment depend on swift bipartisan action to pass a strong Farm Bill that protects conservation, rural development and families across the country.