Rep. Jim Costa is a talker. He will be the first to admit it.
“You ask what time it is, and I’ll tell you how to make a watch,” the Democrat said as he drove through his central Fresno neighborhood on Aug. 28.
He did a lot of talking that day, as he made his usual rounds up Highway 99 and back again for appearances at various community events in Fresno and Madera. But the longtime lawmaker also spent a fair amount of time listening, particularly at two crucial events: A luncheon with Madera County farmers and Farm Bureau representatives, and a roundtable discussion with those battling hunger and food insecurity in the central San Joaquin Valley.
These typically routine meetings had particular significance, as Costa returns to Washington on Wednesday as part of a bicameral committee appointed to sort out the 2018 Farm Bill – a typically routine and bipartisan piece of legislation now in flux due to controversial additions by House Republicans.
Costa has the unique task of representing a slice of Fresno, Madera and Merced counties that not only produces much of the nation’s food but also struggles deeply with hunger issues. The Farm Bill negotiation process could have catastrophic consequences for both ag and the nonprofits working to feed those in need.
As Costa makes his way to Madera, he receives a briefing from his legislative analyst, Ben Goldeen, who is home sick that day.
Goldeen has talked with other congressional staffers, as well as trade representatives and federal offices with agriculture affiliations, to analyze the $4.7 billion plan from the the U.S. Department of Agriculture meant to offset tariffs levied against the country’s agricultural goods.
Dairy isn’t happy, Goldeen tells Costa. The government will offer dairymen 12 cents per hundredweight (the preferred unit of measurement for milk, equal to 112 pounds) based on the farmer’s production in the first half of 2018.
Costa, who grew up working on his family’s dairy, digests the news without question.
There are questions about almonds and pistachios. Most of the bailout money – approximately $3 billion – is going to Midwestern soybean farmers.
After presenting a proclamation in honor of Agriland founder Jim Maxwell at a daycare that houses many of his workers’ children, it’s back on the road.
Costa deftly navigates the streets of Madera as he fields yet another call, this time from House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland.
The House’s farm bill doesn’t look good, Hoyer and Costa agree. They much prefer the Senate’s version, which doesn’t include controversial work requirement increases that could leave millions without Supplement Nutrition Program (SNAP, commonly referred to as food stamp) benefits.
Hoyer doesn’t expect the House to get much of anything done in September, as Speaker Paul Ryan will likely look to end the session as soon as possible so that vulnerable Republicans can return home to campaign.
Votes and discussion on key issues, such as immigration reform and the nation’s budget, will likely wait until Thanksgiving – or later. Costa agrees with Hoyer’s assessment as he pulls into his next destination.
In a private room in the Madera Di Cicco’s, around a dozen Madera, Merced and Fresno county farmers digest recently acquired information along with their scarface as Costa relays a 30-minute update on prices, immigration, water and other key issues.
The growers – a diverse collection led in discussion by Madera nut and grape farmer Rick Cosyns – seem most interested in immigration and water updates.
Both have been nagging issues for a decade or more, but immigration is of particular significance as increased enforcement has frightened existing and would-be workers. They are hoping for some sort of improved guest worker program, as well as protection for their existing workforce.
Costa, who sits on the House Agriculture Committee, did not have much good news.
Republican Congressmen Jeff Denham and David Valadao, who both represent the Valley and have agricultural backgrounds, had worked hard on a more moderate immigration bill that dealt with guest workers and DACA recipients. But their party’s leadership refused to call it to the floor, Costa said.
Costa relayed Hoyer’s assessment that an immigration discussion would likely not happen until the end of the year, if not next year.
“I’d rather be on the farm, where I would spend 10 hours bailing hay and then look behind and see I’ve gotten something done,” Costa said. “You can spend 10 hours working on something in Congress and not see anything get done.”
Most of the upcoming farm bill looked pretty good for farmers, Costa said, but the SNAP changes may doom the House’s version in the Senate. He criticized the Republicans for trying to sneak these divisive cuts into what is typically a straightforward, bipartisan bill signed every four years.
As Costa leaves the restaurant and gets back onto Highway 99, he dictates a text message to district director Kathy Mahan. His office had offered help to a constituent facing deportation, but Costa said it was “50-50” whether she will get to stay in the country.
On the highway, Costa points out construction along the median. He said he helped secure $30 million in funding for a project that will soon widen Highway 99 to five and six lanes for several miles in Madera County.
He can point out a lot of similar accomplishments as he drives back to Fresno: millions for health clinics, veterans homes, hospitals and infrastructure. The 13-year congressman also spent 24 years in the state Legislature, and this well-traveled area – he puts about 40,000 miles on his SUV every year – is spotted with projects he worked on.
Back in Fresno, Costa joins yet another meeting – this time with local leaders fighting hunger and food insecurity in the Valley. It’s typical for him to attend four to six meetings per day when home in the district, Mahan said.
This round table features a who’s who of local nonprofit managers, educational leaders and social service providers who deal in hunger. Among them were Fresno County Department of Social Services Director Delfino Neira, Central California Food Bank President Andy Souza and Fresno State vice president for student affairs Frank Lamas.
The group was clear: Cuts to SNAP would lead to a whole host of consequences, from having to turn people away from food banks to increased health problems and decreased college graduation rates.
Souza pointed out that the Fresno metropolitan area has the third-highest hunger rate in the state, which is actually an improvement as it’s typically first.
Jody Hudson, operations manager for the local Catholic Charities diocese, said her organization can barely feed those in need as it is. Should more people ask for help after losing their federal food aid, Catholic Charities would have to start turning some away.
Nearly 44 percent of Fresno State students suffer from food insecurity, and 81 percent receive some sort of aid either through government assistance, loans or grants, Lamas said.
Costa himself added fuel to the statistical fire, saying 50 percent of his district suffers from food insecurity. One in three residents receive some sort of SNAP benefits, and 25 percent – second only to Valadao’s district in California – use food stamps.
The congressman said he did not support the proposed cuts to SNAP, which he said included a provision in which most adults would only be able to receive food stamps for 90 days while out of work before being removed from the program.
Souza leaves Costa with a parting sentiment: He goes back to Washington to represent a region that paradoxically produces the most food and has the most hunger of any in the country.
“You just wrote my opening statement for me,” Costa says.