June 16, 2024

Sen. Ernst visits Benson Hill

Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst learned Tuesday the science behind soybeans while she was taking a break from the details of the next Farm Bill.

Ernst toured Creston’s Benson Hill soybean processing plant that was acquired by the brand in early 2022. The Creston facility converts soybeans to soy meal and oil, as well as food-grade soy white flake, flour and grits which can be marketed as ingredients or used as raw material for further production of concentrates, isolates and textured protein products.

The Creston stop was part of a tour of southern Iowa as she was also in Osceola, Wayne and Monroe counties the same day. She is scheduled to have a town hall at 7:45 a.m., April 11 at Warren Cultural Center in Greenfield.

With her and fellow Republican Senator Charles Grassley both on the Senate agriculture committee research and discussion are continuing on the next Farm Bill, the policy that stretches over five years and regulates 12 different categories including support systems for farmers.

“Crop insurance is one of them,” Ernst said about the details.

President of the Pennsylvania Corn Growers Elizabeth Hinkel has emphasized the need to make crop insurance more accessible. She claims about 45% of corn acres in her state are not insured leaving farmers financially responsible for any crop loss.

A portion of crop insurance is funded by the Farm Bill. Hinkle hopes the new bill makes it easier for more farmers to have an insurance policy. Not only does the bill include crop protection, Ernst said another growing topic is conservation practices.

“Soil health is important,” she said. Ernst said she has been encouraged by the use of cover crops to retain topsoil and knows severe weather events can also threaten agriculture land.

Members of Congress have expressed an interest in climate-change mitigating efforts. There is a consensus among the members to make any programs voluntary and not required.

Ernst said the largest financial piece of the Farm Bill is Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP). The program that provides financial assistance for food for low-income families is valued at more than $1.5 trillion. The biggest portion of the bill is the nutrition. It makes up about 80% of the bill’s spending and helps to manage nutrition assistance programs, such as food stamps. Although nutrition programs are funded through regular budget bills, the Farm Bill helps make the rules for how the programs will work and who qualifies.

Low-income Iowans and advocates told Iowa lawmakers Tuesday adding SNAP asset tests and identity verification will keep people from accessing food or health care assistance, but supporters said these are necessary safeguards to stop misuse of public funds.

The House Appropriations Committee held a public hearing on Senate File 494. Speakers included people both for and against the eligibility changes for Iowans receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Medicaid benefits.

Under the bill, Iowa households would be limited to maximum of $15,000 in assets to stay eligible for assistance, excluding the value of a home and car, and up to $10,000 in value of a second car. Households would also have to remain below 160% of the federal poverty level in monthly income to get benefits.

But advocates said the addition of identity and asset verification tests would be a larger problem for people accessing assistance than the financial limits. The bill requires the Iowa Department of Health and Human Services to create a computerized eligibility verification system for public assistance programs, through which recipients would submit information on themselves and their belongings before receiving funds.

Families on SNAP are already facing issues such as the end of emergency allotments implemented during the COVID-19 pandemic, Luke Elzinga with the Des Moines Area Religious Council and Iowa Hunger Coalition said. This will make legitimately needy people’s lives more difficult, he said. Multiple speakers representing food banks across the state spoke about the record high traffic of people seeking assistance in the past three years.

“SNAP is already inaccessible for many Iowans facing food insecurity,” Elzinga said. “Meanwhile, food banks and food pantries across the state are assisting record-breaking numbers of people turning to them for assistance to put food on the table.”

While several speakers said cutting off aid to people in need is not Christian, other Iowa religious leaders spoke in support of the bill. Andres Reyes, the senior pastor of the First Baptist Church in Perry, said the bill is about “personal accountability,” and helps people cultivate a sense of value by holding them accountable for working.

“One of the greatest problems in America today is depression,” Reyes said. “The number one reason is because people do not work as hard as other generations. The only way to cure the problem is to hold others accountable for working for what they have.”

The Iowa Senate passed the legislation along party lines in March, and a House subcommittee moved the bill forward a week before the public hearing. At those earlier meetings, Democrats and advocates called attention to the LSA numbers on who will be removed from assistance programs through these new requirements. In all, 8,000 Medicaid recipients, 2,800 SNAP recipients, and hundreds in the Children’s Health Insurance Program and Family Investment Program would have benefits canceled, according to the report — not necessarily for committing fraud, but because of reporting discrepancies.

But these verification processes are needed because there are people misusing assistance programs, Darla Chappell with the Jackson County Republican Central Committee said. Chappell said while working at a bank, she observed people in her town, St. Donatus on the Illinois border, who were collecting government assistance from multiple states.

“Our elected officials are elected to be watchdogs on how Iowa funds are spent,” Chappell said. “They must be spent correctly. Please vote yes on this bill to ensure our money goes where needed, and not into the pockets of liars, cheaters and drunks.”

Iowa Capital Dispatch contributed to this story

John Van Nostrand

JOHN VAN NOSTRAND

An Iowa native, John's newspaper career has mostly been in small-town weeklies from the Rocky Mountains to the Mississippi River. He first stint in Creston was from 2002 to 2005.