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Farm Bill: Snapping Food from the Mouths of the Poor

As you might have heard by now, it’s time to renew the Farm Bill.   Thanks President Franklin D. Roosevelt, every 5 years this legislation to ensure that America’s farmers produce food and that Americans can afford to purchase has been reauthorized for nearly 8 decades.


The first farm bill was named The Agricultural Adjustment Act and was enacted May 12, 1933 as an integral part of the New Deal 79 years ago. It restricted agricultural production by paying farmers subsidies not to plant on part of their land. This was intended to reduce crop surplus, consequently boosting the market value of crops.

The current Farm Bill is a large multi-aspect omnibus agricultural and food policy legislative instrument administered by the Department of Agriculture.


Much of the controversy regarding the successive iterations of the farm bills has focused on the “subsidization” of large corporate farming operations in the mid-western American “breadbasket” at the expense of smaller farmers like the ones where I grew up.    But it’s actually a misnomer to call these policies crop subsidies.  Especially since 1953, farm bill funding has been based on the size of the farm and household income of a particular farm and is structured proportionally as household income.


According to the New York Times, “Farmers who grow corn, wheat, soybeans, cotton and other crops receive about $5 billion in direct payments. These payments have become harder to justify as farm income has risen to historic levels — a record $101 billion last year”.


Other complaints have focused on spending money on sparsely populated rural regions of America at the expense of urban areas with presumably greater needs.   Many on both sides of the aisle have also questioned the wisdom of “agricultural welfare”.


I’d like to focus on the nutritional assistance aspect of the bill and how it demonstrates a set of priorities in what is effectively a redistribution of wealth from poor American to large corporate interests.


The Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), as it has come to be called, provides financial assistance for food purchasing to low income people and families and is administered by the Food and Nutrition Service of the Department of Agriculture. It’s popularly known as the Food Stamp Program. In the 2011 fiscal year, $76.7 billion in food stamps were distributed. As of March 2012[update], 46.4 million Americans were receiving on average $133.14 monthly.


This will look (and taste) much different in 2013.


The Senate version would cut $4.5 billion in Food Stamps. It proposes a total cost of nearly $1 trillion over the next 10 years. It would fund dozens of price support and crop insurance programs for farmers and food assistance for low-income families.

Various food and nutrition groups have objected.  While they said the bill provided incentives for low-income families to buy more fruits and vegetables due to new guidelines, they argue that the cuts will have a devastating effect on low-income families during a time of high unemployment.


In an effort to safeguard the opportunity for all Americans to have access to healthy, nutritious food, U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand made an impassioned plea to restore proposed cuts of $4.5 billion in food assistance, part of the bill.   She was ultimately unsuccessful.

According to Gillibrand, a $4.5 billion cut to SNAP funding would affect nearly 300,000 New York families in her home state alone.  These Americans needing help would stand to lose approximately $90 a month, according to estimates from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.


This past Thursday, the House Agriculture Committee had their turn at the nutritional fillet knife.  It voted to gut even more from the program.   Their version of the bill would cut 16 ½ billion from this critical program that low-income Americans rely on.  To be clear, more than 2 million Americans will lose benefits under the farm bill devised by the committee’s leaders, Representatives Frank Lucas of Oklahoma and Collin Peterson Minnesota.



Like the Senate bill, the House version would end direct cash payments to farms, 26 of which received $20 million dollars each.  Although those cuts could have covered the money cut to maintain current levels in the food stamp program.  The House Committee however, has sent 70 % of those savings back into farming interests for crop insurance and new price support programs, covering the gap between sale price and predicted market value.  This certainly belies the “free market” philosophy and spending cut rhetoric we have been inundated with.


Chris Hayes ran a very good summary discussion of this latest debate on Saturday.  Hayes has captured the point well.  He points out that “On the same day they vote to repeal the ACA they come up with new price support programs and subsized crop insurance for farmers that are large, industrial interests.”   This is certainly not smaller government, but rather a redistribution of resources from disadvantaged to corporate agricultural interests.  The legislation stipulates that the bigger the farms are, the more money they get from the government. It’s actually based on household income, not crop volume.


Will the end of direct payments switching to crop insurance model – change the way that these benefits work?


Apparently not.


George Naylor, former President National Family Farm Coalition, claims that the system will continue to perpetuate “cheap food cheap corn, cheap soybeans so they can keep feed animals in inhumane corporate feedlots owned and controlled by the large packing companies that are putting out lousy meat and bring (us) our food from all over the world from thousands of miles away and focusing our attention on the issue of welfare when we should be asking what’s happening to the commons, what’s happening to the farmlands”.


One of the results we’re getting is mile after mile of mono-crops. This means an inventory of strictly corn or soybeans with extensive soil erosion.   With the use of more and more use of pesticides we end up with extensive problems with pests that develop immunity to the tried and not so true farming practices.  No farm bill since 1953 have has addressed any of these issues.  This is a bipartisan policy on behalf of corporate agribusiness.


Reliance on monocultures and vast tracts of single crops sold in international commodities markets will happen independently of any farm bill.  The real sound alternative to raising corn and soybeans would be hay, pasture and small grains in a crop rotation where the livestock are being raised on family farms instead of large inhumane factory farms.


At the same time the House version would give farmers a big raise in income, expand crop insurance by $9.5 billion and cut conservation programs by $6 billion.


In this time of high unemployment, an average of ¼ of American children falling into poverty and severe income disparity we are due for a cut in nutrition assistance to the families who need it most.


So in effect what we’re getting is a redistribution of resources that is producing grossly inefficient economic rent and use of valuable land while millions of Americans will be forced into even worse hardship in an effort to eat.

Since 2009, one million more children in America have fallen into poverty.  This brings the total to an estimated 15.7 million poor children in 2010, an increase of 2.6 million since the recession began in 2007, according to researchers from the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire.  According to the nonprofit group Feed the Children, 12 million children are in danger of going hungry.


The need to cut the deficit and debt is all we seem to hear from those members of Congress who portray themselves as our guardians to protect us from the impending fiscal cliff.  But redistributing federal money from family nutrition to large corporate agricultural enterprises certainly betrays the “smaller government” mantra so popular among fiscal conservatives.    This is a clear matter of powerful voices usurping attention and resources from those with least power and a desperate need for help, a familiar tale.


Senator Gillibrand has said it well: “….families who are living in poverty, who are just trying to figure out how to keep the lights on and put food on the table, they did not spend this nation into debt, and we should not be trying to balance the budget on their backs. … We should be helping the most needy among us. Our children, our seniors, a family at risk.


     The most poignant remark by the Senator invoked scripture: “In Matthew 25, the first question Christ asks on Judgment Day is, ‘Did you feed the poor?'”  She went to say, “It’s unacceptable that we have Republican advocates who are saying it’s immoral to support food stamps.”


We certainly don’t have a bumper crop of morality in 21st Century America nor do we seem to know what it would even look like. We can only hope that the final bill that emerges from the bicameral conference will have some regard for Americans who need help feeding themselves and their families.




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Thomas P. Davis

Thomas P. Davis

I'm a freelance writer based in New Jersey. I've been writing about public issues for 10 years.