by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Farm-policy

Jan 14 2014

Congress releases its draft budget bill (sigh)

In the strange way the U.S. government works, Congress has produced the “Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2014,” which authorizes payments for government services, including those related to agriculture.

This is not the farm bill.  It’s what Congress decides taxpayers will pay for in the farm bill as well as bills that cover other programs run by USDA.

The House summary of agriculture appropriations is a lot easier to read than the bill itself, although it contains its share of double speak.  Try this:

WIC – This program provides supplemental nutritional foods needed by pregnant and nursing mothers, babies and young children. The bill provides full funding for WIC at $6.7 billion – $153 million below the fiscal year 2013 enacted level…This level will ensure all eligible participants will be served.

Can someone please explain to me how a cut of $153 million will ensure service to everyone who is eligible?  WIC is not an entitlement; eligible people cannot be served once the money runs out.

The bill does provide full spending—$82.2 billion—for SNAP, but only because it has to.  SNAP is an entitlement and spending for it is mandatory.  Unless, of course, Congress ever passes the farm bill, which currently contains a $9 billion proposed cut.

And here’s more double speak.  “The legislation includes several provisions to reduce spending and increase oversight of taxpayer dollars.”  How?  By authorizing spending for:

  • Oversight and monitoring requirements for the WIC program, including a directive for the Secretary of Agriculture to increase oversight of vendors to help rein in food costs;
  • A provision requiring USDA to submit a plan for reducing high error rates and improper payments in the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs;
  • Requirements for the Secretary of Agriculture to help weed out and eliminate waste, fraud, and abuse in the SNAP program – including a directive to ban fraudulent vendors, and a prohibition on advertisements or outreach with foreign governments.

And why does the FDA’s budget still get decided by committees dealing with agricultural appropriations?

The FDA is a public health agency in the Department of Health and Human Services, which is funded by entirely different committees which you might think understand its mission a lot better than committees fussing about legislation that

restricts the Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration (GIPSA) from implementing certain regulations that would allow harmful government interference in the private market for the livestock and poultry industry.

I can hardly wait to see what the farm bill will look like.

Dec 11 2013

Food Policy Action releases handy Congress “scorecard” on food issues

Washington is such a mess that you can’t tell the players without a scorecard, and this one is really useful.

Food Policy Action to the rescue.

Food Policy Action is a project of the Environmental Working Group.  Ken Cook of EWG is its chair.  Tom Colicchio is listed as the first board member.

The 2013 National Food Policy Scorecard ranks each member of the Senate and House on their votes on food issues.

The interactive map lets you click on a state and see how our congressional representatives are voting.  According to the scorecard, 87 members are Good Food Champions.  We need more!

I looked up New York.  Senator Charles Schumer gets a perfect 100%.  Yes!

But Senator Kirsten Gillibrand only gets 67%.

How come?  Click on her name and the site lists her votes on key legislation.  Oops.  She voted against GMO labeling and against a key farm bill amendment on crop insurance.  If you click on the button, you get to learn more about this vote and the legislation.

This kind of information is hard to come by.  Food Policy Action’s scorecard is easy to use and performs a terrific public service.

Thanks to everyone responsible for it.

Jul 22 2013

The Farm Bill: A Very Brief History

I am an avid reader of Jerry Hagstrom’s Hagstrom Report, which I subscribe to and consider well worth the price.  He not only tracks farm and agriculture policy, but explains it in ways that I can actually understand.

Sometimes, his articles go to the National Journal and other places with open access.  This one gives a lucid history of the farm bill along with the politics of the current congressional impasse.

The history matters because the farm bill is otherwise inexplicable.

Here’s how we got to this point:

  • 1933       Congress passes the Agricultural Adjustment Act to deal with commodity surpluses that nobody has any money to buy during the Great Depression.  The bill included production.
  • 1936       Supreme Court rules production controls unconstitutional. Congress passes the Soil Conservation and Domestic Allotment Act to deal with this decision and the consequences of the Dust Bowl.
  • 1938       Congress passes new Agricultural Adjustment Act (this includes sections of the 1933 law that were unaffected by the Court ruling, the 1936 conservation law, and new commodity legislation that meets the Court’s standards).
  • 1949       Congress passes law giving high, fixed-support prices that trigger subsidy payments when market prices fall below certain levels.

Since then whenever Congress passes new farm bills, it suspends the 1938 and 1949 commodity titles  for specific periods of time (the alternative would be to amend those laws, or pass new laws that will be permanent and difficult to change).

Where does SNAP fit in?

  • 1964       Congress passes Food Stamp Act
  • 1977       SNAP incorporated into farm bill.

Hagstrom points out that SNAP does not have permanent authorization; it expires with the farm bill.  But it is an entitlement, meaning that anyone who qualifies gets funded.    This, however, requires congressional appropriations.

So everything is up to Congress, and none of the reasonable options look possible.

Sad.  Infuriating, actually.

Jun 21 2013

Government in (in)action: House votes no on farm bill

Yesterday, the House rejected H.R. 1947, the Federal Agriculture Reform and Risk Management Act of 2013, by a vote of 234 to 195.

Voting against the bill were:

  • Republicans who thought a $20 billion cut to SNAP (food stamps) and a $5 billion cut to farm supports were not nearly deep enough.
  • Democrats who were appalled by the cuts to SNAP and the addition of amendments requiring SNAP applicants to be tested for drugs, to be rejected if they had ever been found guilty of felonies, and to be required to work.

Unless Congress gets its act together, support for SNAP and agriculture revert to the provisions of the 2008 bill [Oops.  The 1949 bill].  Congress will have to deal with some of trauma that results from this.

My favorite comment on this situation comes from Joel Berg, Executive Director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger:

We celebrate the failure of this horrific federal Farm Bill which would have slashed SNAP nutrition benefits by over $20 billion. Not only would this Farm Bill have taken food off the table of low-income children, veterans, working parents, and people with disabilities, it would have actually expanded corporate welfare for agri-businesses…It’s time to go back to the drawing board, and for both houses of Congress…to pass a Farm Bill that puts the interests of hungry Americans, consumers, family farmers, the environment, and taxpayers above those of corporate welfare.

Is any of this news?  Not page 1, apparently.  I’m in Los Angeles where the New York Times put the story on page 12.

Other comments worth reading:

May 29 2013

Keeping track of the farm bill: 194 amendments so far, just in the Senate

Congress is in recess this week so nothing new is happening on the farm bill.

I’m indebted to Jerry Hagstrom, who writes the Hagstrom Report and follows farm bill issues closely, for publishing a list of amendments filed to date on the Senate draft of the bill.  Would you believe 194?

Of these, the Senate has managed to deal with a few.

The Senate passed:

  • Cantwell amendment to allow Indian tribes to participate in certain soil and water conservation programs. (#919)
  • Sessions amendment to clarify eligibility criteria for agricultural irrigation assistance. (#945, as modified) by unanimous consent.
  • Franken amendment to provide access to grocery delivery for homebound seniors and individuals with disabilities eligible for supplemental nutrition assistance benefits. (#992) by unanimous consent.
  • Vitter amendment to end food stamp eligibility for convicted violent rapists, pedophiles, and murderers. (#1056) by unanimous consent. 
It rejected:
  • Shaheen amendment to reform the federal sugar program, and for other purposes. (#925)
  • Gillibrand amendment to strike a reduction in the supplemental nutrition assistance program, with an offset that limits crop insurance reimbursements to providers. (#931)
  • Roberts amendment to improve and extend certain nutrition programs. (#948)
  • Inhofe amendment to repeal the nutrition entitlement programs and establish a nutrition assistance block grant program. (#960)
  • Sanders amendment to permit states to require that any food, beverage, or other edible product offered for sale have a label on indicating that the food, beverage, or other edible product contains a genetically engineered ingredient. (#965) by a vote of 71 to 27.

Attempts to eliminate cuts to SNAP failed (sigh) but so did an attempt to leave food stamps up to states (cheers).  This means SNAP will have at least a $4 billion cut over 10 years—the best that can be hoped for at this point.

The Senate rejected  GM labeling.

Reform the sugar program?  Don’t be silly.  At some point, I’ll have more to say about that one.

As for the next 190 or so….  And as for what the House will do….

It would be great drama if it weren’t so sad and so much weren’t at stake. 

May 22 2013

Civics lesson: SNAP amendments to the farm bill

I know the mere words “farm bill” are enough to put any sane person into a coma, but what’s happening in Congress can be quite entertaining if you don’t care what happens.

For example, the bill is so big and covers so much territory that just about every legislator introduces amendments (these are tracked by FarmBillPrimer.org).

Because SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) takes up 80% of farm bill funding to the tune of about $80 billion a year, lots of amendments deal with further decreasing the budget allocation or restoring amounts that have been cut.  So far, none of these has passed.

But legislators have other things they want SNAP to do.  For example, Senator Tom Coburn MD (Rep-Oklahoma) has introduced several amendments pertaining to SNAP, among them:

Amendment 1000 – Junk Food Purchases with SNAP: Requires the Secretary of Agriculture to approve state demonstration projects that limit the purchase of junk food under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Additional information here

 

Energy drinks, candy bars, sodas, ice cream, potato chips, fancy bakery cakes and cookies are all eligible foods under the program, as defined by statute…Few people would qualify these goods as “nutritional assistance.”

Amendment 1001 – Food Stamps: Returns the title of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program to its original name, the Food Stamp program. Additional information here.   

Congress renamed the Food Stamp Program to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and made a name change to the underlying legislative bill governing food stamps. Given spending patterns and eligible purchases in the program, though, SNAP is anything but nutritious for recipients or the country as a whole. Instead of misleading the public as to its benefits, SNAP should be renamed its original title, the Food Stamp Program. This name…is also a reminder of the core goal of the program: to serve our nation’s most vulnerable.

Amendment 1002 – SNAP Promotion Limitation: Limits the amount of SNAP funding that may be used to promote increased participation and enrollment in the program to 1% of overall funds and prevents SNAP funding for soap operas and parties. Additional information here.

Giveaways, soap operas, and radio miniseries all may be solid advertising opportunities for private companies wishing to market a product. They are not, however, appropriate uses of taxpayer funds to advocate for greater enrollment in SNAP, which would even further drain the government’s already-depleted coffers.

 Want to take bets on whether the Senate, let alone the House, will pass any of these?
May 20 2013

What I’m reading about the farm bill: sarcastic, sober, troubling

The best recent analysis of what’s happening with the farm bill comes from Tom Laskawy on Grist.

For one thing, it has a great title: “Undead farm bill: Everyone’s favorite legislative zombie shuffles on.”

For another, it makes a troubling point: if Congress fails to pass a farm bill, the good parts go out with the bad.

Actually, the question really is whether Congress will ever pass a farm bill again. For the first time, those close to the legislative process are starting to have their doubts. And that may be a really bad thing.

Bah, humbug, you say! The farm bill is larded with bipartisan subsidies for the largest-scale farmers who grow commodities like corn, soy, and cotton. It’s also the bill that authorizes the federal crop insurance program, which has grown like gangbusters over the last decade. Last year (thanks to the drought) farmers received over $17 billion in insurance payouts — almost all of which benefited large-scale commodity agriculture. A chicken pox on all their coops!

That not an unreasonable reaction. But also at stake in the farm bill are billions of dollars for conservation programs that help farmers mitigate the environmental effects of their work, and pay them to set aside marginal farmland as wildlife habitat. It also contains millions in federal funds that support organic farmers, help younger and “new” farmers get their start, and prop up local food efforts, organic research, and farmers markets.

What’s good in the current farm bill draft?  The Specialty Crop Farm Bill Alliance (which represents growers of fruits, vegetables, nuts) summarizes:

  • Specialty Crop Block Grants funded at $72.5 million in fiscal 2014-2017 and $85 million in FY2018
  • Specialty Crop Research Initiative funded at $50 million in FY2014-15; $55 million in FY 2016-2017; and $65 million in FY2018
  • Coordinated Plant Management Program funded at $62.5 million in FY2014-2017 and $75 million in FY2018
  • Market Access Program and Technical Assistance for Specialty Crops fully funded at 2008 Farm Bill levels
  • Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program fully funded at 2008 Farm Bill levels
  • Section 32 specialty crop purchases at 2008 levels
  • DoD Fresh program fully funded at $50 million per year consistent with 2008 Farm Bill levels
Dan Flynn of Food Safety News compares the amount of time spent on the farm bill to the Korean War and explains the meaning of its  proposal to transfer “non-inspection” of catfish from USDA to FDA.

Here are the bills:

This is all so disheartening.  Eternal optimist that I am, even I am having trouble with this one.

May 16 2013

The farm bill’s nutrition efforts: practically irrelevant to SNAP

SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, is funded by Title IV in the farm bill, currently under consideration in Congress.   It accounts for about 80% of the total farm bill funding, and costs taxpayers about $80 billion a year.

SNAP is an entitlement, which means that everyone who qualifies gets benefits—unless Congress changes that.  So far, all it is doing is trying to cut budget.

Although SNAP is under the Nutrition title, little about the program is designed to improve the nutrition and health of participants.  But the farm bill has plenty to say about nutrition—just not for SNAP participants.

Much of the Senate version of the Nutrition Title is about continued funding for food assistance programs other than SNAP:

  • The Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP)
  • The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) which mainly works through food banks
  • The Department of Defense Fresh Program (fresh foods to schools and service institutions)
  • Agriculture Marketing Service pilot programs in states for to source local foods
  • The Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program (coupon exchange at farmers’ markets, roadside stands, and community supported agriculture programs).
  • A new Pulse Products Program that encourages sampling of a variety of beans and peas for use in school meal programs (I suspect some lobbying here).
  • A Healthy Food Financing Initiative to administer loans and grants to improve access to healthy foods in “food deserts.”
  • The Fresh Fruit and Vegetables Program to provide free fresh fruits and vegetables to low-income elementary school children
  • Grants to eligible nonprofit organizations to improve community access to food through school gardens programs and urban greenhouse initiatives
  • A new Service and Learning program funded at $25 million in which members work in K-12 schools to engage children in experiential learning about agriculture, gardening, nutrition, cooking and where food comes from. [Wow!  This one reads as if written to support FoodCorps—wouldn’t that be terrific!]
  • Interagency taskforce to coordinate and direct programs that supply food to key nutrition programs like the Emergency Food Assistance Program and National School Lunch Program.

And here’s another one about the Dietary Guidelines for Americans of all things [whose bright idea was this?]:

  • Not later than the 2020 report [the Dietary Guidelines for Americans] and in each report thereafter, the Secretaries [of USDA and HHS] shall include national nutritional and dietary information and guidelines for pregnant women and children from birth.

The Senate bill does have one useful, if poorly funded, piece directed at the health of SNAP participants, and another aimed at retailers:

  • Grants to expand the purchase of fruits and vegetables by SNAP participants through programs like “Double Up Food Bucks.”
  • Requires retailers who accept SNAP benefit payments to stock a wider range of healthful foods.

The House bill does more or less the same with the addition of:

  • Grants for eligible nonprofit organizations seeking and developing innovative ways to improve community access to healthy foods.
The costs of these changes are not specified except in just a few cases.
Budget cuts are the big issue.

Small-farm activist Ferd Hoefner, policy director at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, said the quarrel over SNAP could rupture a long-standing partnership of rural and urban lawmakers who supported farm programs on the one hand, and public nutrition programs on the other.

“Is this the end of the farm bill coalition?” Hoefner said.

Is it?  I wonder if we will ever have a Congress that puts a little vision into this bill and writes legislation to solve some of our country’s agriculture, poverty, and health problems, interconnected as they are.

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