Unless you actually grow crops, the farm bill can be an overwhelming piece of legislation. News reports last week on House approval of a new five-year, $286 billion measure were peppered with words like “massive,” “major,” “mammoth” and “sprawling.”
But among progressive activists, outrage is the most common response. A broad coalition of fair-trade groups, environmentalists, religious organizations and fiscal conservatives are furious with a “broken system” of age-old subsidies to grain and cotton farmers. Reform groups like Oxfam America repeatedly cite the statistic that 75 percent of all subsidies go to the top 10 percent of producers of staple goods like corn. They underline the bureaucratic mess of a system that allows celebrity farmers like David Letterman and Scottie Pippen to receive farm subsidies. Organizations from Taxpayers for Common Sense to the Progressive National Baptist Convention argue that subsidies encourage mass production by agribusiness, dump unwanted crops on developing countries and destroy the livelihood of farmers in the Third World.
The new House Democratic majority could have produced a different outcome. Instead, reformers say, Democrats expediently protected subsidy-heavy Congressional districts. “It is the status quo with an illusion of reform wrapped around it,” declares Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group, an organization that keeps a database on all government subsidies to farmers. “The House bill was about entrenched interests who managed to push it off as reform,” asserts the Rev. David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World. The farm-bill reform movement–armed with editorial-page support from more than seventy daily newspapers–will next vigorously lobby the Senate, which is scheduled to come up with its own overhaul of the subsidy system in September.
But there is a problem with the “politics as usual” narrative. In this case, it is not altogether true. Indeed, the farm bill has become an unlikely and overlooked vehicle for progressive policies. Two-thirds of that $286 billion goes toward more–and healthier–food to schoolchildren at home and to the hungry abroad. And while subsidies are the focus of the reform movement’s ire, these payments to farmers amount to just 13 percent of the House bill.
A critical component of the bill gives $4 billion more to the federal food stamp program that helps feed the 25 million hungry Americans. The 1996 Welfare Reform Act had significantly scaled back food stamps, giving the average individual a stipend of $21 a week–or $1 a meal. The farm bill would belatedly adjust the stipends for inflation and provide more money to food banks, which supply food pantries and soup kitchens. The legislation also helps those abroad by allocating $840 million in US hunger-aid programs.
And the House finally recognized America’s growing healthy-eating movement by significantly expanding fruit and vegetable school snack programs and setting aside nearly $2 billion for farmers to grow “specialty” crops that fall outside the big five of corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton and rice. Much of that money will go to small organic farming.