On Farms and Food

As both houses of Congress continue work on major farm legislation this month one of the central issues to be resolved is how much money can they take away from food assistance programs.

 

Yes, at a time when more than 50 million Americans (including 17 million children) are considered “food insecure” by the Dept. of Agriculture, our senators and representatives are haggling over how they can effectively cut back on feeding hungry children, seniors, and veterans, while at the same time continuing traditional subsidies for big Ag. and its allies.

 

The problem of hunger in America is fully explored in a new documentary film titled “A Place At The Table.”  With expert analysis and compelling personal interviews, the film takes us to the heart of America’s astonishing inability to feed its people—often even those with jobs.

 

The debate over the nation’s farm and food policy, though, is playing out currently on Capitol Hill.  The $955 billion 5-year Senate farm bill would cut $23 billion from agriculture spending, including $4.1 billion from “food stamps” (now called SNAP, for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program).

 

Here’s the back and forth, the give and take, on this bill in the Senate last week: Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) proposed an amendment that would slash an additional $12 from SNAP, but that was voted down, 40-58. Then Sen. Kristen Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) presented an amendment that would restore the $4.1 billion in cuts already specified in the bill. Her arguments—more personal stories of Americans struggling with food security—may seem persuasive to those of us who a couple months ago joined Congresswoman Lois Capps for a local screening of “A Place At The Table,” but the Senate saw it otherwise. Gillibrand’s amendment failed 26-70, with 28 Democrats joining the Republican opposition, including our own Dianne Feinstein.

 

The Chair of the Agriculture Committee, Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) opposed Gillibrand’s amendment to restore the food assistance cuts, saying the farm bill’s cuts to SNAP simply addressed “waste, fraud, and abuse.” Wonder where she found that well-turned phrase?

 

In fact, she was resisting the will of other Democrats who saw reducing a comparable amount from crop insurance subsidies—a form of corporate welfare much beloved in farm states—as a more sensible way to trim fat from the bill.

 

That subsidy, essentially a guaranteed profit for a few crop insurance companies (mostly based overseas), may seem insignificant compared to matters of hunger, but in Congress it is a divisive issue that could easily sink the whole farm bill enterprise. Despite Stabenow’s opposition (and that of ranking Republican Thad Cochran of Mississippi), the Senate had already approved some reduction in that aspect of the bill.

 

In the name of bipartisanship and to find some common ground with the rabidly right House of Representatives, Stabenow (along with Feinstein and over two dozen other Democrats) chose corporate welfare over hungry children.

 

The House farm bill on tap involves nearly $40 billion in total cuts with $20.5 billion taken from SNAP, and no provisions at all to reduce crop insurance subsidies. Last year House leaders refused to even bring a draft farm bill to the floor.

 

There’s the choice in Washington these days: dumb or dumber. The White House says it favors the Senate bill.

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