Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Detangling the Farm Bill (3): What's eating all the money?

Choice tidbits from the Farm Bill's expansive budget

Estimated in 2008 to cost $284 billion across five years, the Farm Bill is now projected to cost $420 billion. For starters: YIKES. Why such growth? Where’s the money going? Our forks are poised to dig into this big ole fruity pastry.
Graphic thanks to ourohio.org/
Our last post on the history of the Farm Bill took the bill at its word: about farms. But the pie you see above makes clear that nutrition programs are actually the biggest eaters around.

Though the nutrition title has always been the largest piece of Farm Bill pie, it has rapidly expanded in the past two years. Most of the nutrition allocation in the Farm Bill goes to assistance programs like food stamps, which provide a safety net to the poorest members of our communities.  Tough economic times and rising food costs have led to increased participation.  A record 43 million Americans now receive SNAP benefits (i.e. food stamps), which represents a 16% increase in participation in the last year alone.
Given that nearly three-quarters of the Farm Bill’s funds go to nutrition programs, the reform effort to rename it the Food Bill makes a lot more sense. Which leads to a bigger question: why do programs as far-flung as land conservation and food stamps share a budgetary umbrella?  To answer this question, we must return to birthplace of these programs: the original wedding of surplus food to hungry people.

Graphic thanks to good-potato.com
At their beginning in the 1930s, food stamps were just that: orange and blue paper squares. For every $1 orange stamp purchased, the buyer received 50 cents in free blue stamps. Orange stamps bought any food. The blue ones were only for certain items that the government had designated as agricultural surpluses- usually lots of dairy, flour, lard, and sometimes seasonal fruits and vegetables. Surplus food + hungry people = everyone satisfied, right?

It worked for a while, but the arrival of World War 2 converted crop surpluses into crop scarcities. Americans found jobs, and the food stamp program ended. When it was resurrected in 1964, its goal was still to support farmers and feed hungry people-- but the political and agricultural landscapes had changed. As we dissected in the last post, our government began to subsidize big agri-businesses to grow huge quantities of commodity crops (corn, soy, rice, wheat, etc.) that are processed into "food". At the same time, food stamps evolved into cash allotments based on income and family size, such that recipients can select foods based on their dietary needs and personal tastes. But while food security may be better than the program's early days, free choice remains highly contentious.

Much publicity has been generated by public figures who go on the 'food stamp diet,' and the results are consistent: you can fill your stomach, but you can’t afford fresh food. Agricultural subsidies make junk food artificially cheap and force people with limited means to choose between health and hunger. The government still doles out its surpluses, just more covertly.

So, surprise, surprise! The funding for Farm Bill pie is complicated. But the connections are plainly obvious: how we fund our farmers determines how we treat our land, bodies, and communities.

Next time, we ask: who? Let’s examine the demographics of the formidable Farm Bill.

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