The U.S. bishops and other Catholic leaders in social services gave a mixed reaction to the advance of a farm bill in Congress, noting several areas of concern including funding cuts for food stamp programs.

"While we are disappointed that the final compromise continues to call disproportionately for sacrifices from hungry and poor people in this country and around the world, especially when large industrial agricultural operations continue to receive unnecessary subsidies, we are glad to see support will continue for domestic and international nutrition and development aid, rural development and conservation," Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami said Jan. 29.

The archbishop chairs the Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development for the U.S. Bishops' Conference.

On Jan. 29 the Republican-controlled House of Representatives passed the Federal Agriculture Reform and Risk Management Act by a vote of 251-166. The bill had been delayed for more than two years. Spending cuts for the five-year, $500 billion farm bill were a special area of contention.

The U.S. bishops vocally opposed cuts and changes to some programs funded by the bill, such as the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), informally known as the food stamp program. The congressional proposal calls for $8.6 billion in cuts to the program over 10 years by increasing the threshold of eligibility for participants in the federal government's low-income home energy assistance programs.

Cuts to the legislation mean that about 850,000 households will lose about $90 in monthly benefits, the New York Times reports.

Despite this, the bill provides some increases for The Emergency Food Assistance Program.

The bishops have said the farm bill should prioritize the poor and hungry, serve small and medium-sized family farms, support sustainable farming, and help vulnerable farmers and communities around the world, the U.S. bishops' conference said.

Bishop Richard E. Pates of Des Moines, chair of the U.S. bishops' Committee on International Justice and Peace, welcomed Congress' "renewed commitment" to programs that "tackle root causes of chronic hunger." He voiced appreciation for the bill's "foresight" in making programs more cost effective to help serve more people with limited resources.

Bishop Pates and Catholic Relief Services president Carolyn Woo voiced support for the international food assistance funding in the bill. They also supported changes intended to increase programs' efficiency.

Father Larry Snyder, president of Catholic Charities USA,voiced continued concern that the "most vulnerable" will "bear the greatest burden" of budget cuts for anti-poverty programs.

"However, we realize that tough choices may have to be made," he continued. He encouraged U.S. leaders to "commit to ensuring that millions of our brothers and sisters are not being left out or left behind."

Sheila K. Gilbert, president of the National Council of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, joined Fr. Snyder in noting the challenges that her organization and Catholic Charities agencies face in helping to serve those in need.

James Ennis, executive director of Catholic Rural Life, commented on the need for agricultural reform. He expressed disappointment that "necessary reforms" in farm commodity programs and payment levels were eliminated from the bill.

He advocating closing "loopholes" and setting "real payment limits."

"By doing so, the farm bill will help save hundreds of millions of dollars and take a step towards leveling the playing field for all family farmers," Ennis said.