Dysfunction Fails Farmers and the Hungry
Community social services workers, nonprofits, farm group leaders, and food companies are wrapping up a Food Access Summit in Duluth to assess growing needs and responses to hunger in Minnesota.
This comes when the future of federal food assistance is in doubt because a deadlocked Congress has failed to pass continuing legislation for the nation’s farm and food policies. It comes as the food supply is wilting under the nation’s worst drought in 56 years.
If Congress fails to pass new food and farm legislation, commonly called the Farm Bill, existing food aid programs would continue forward until a lame duck session (after the November election) or a new Congress is convened in January and decides future policy, said Jill Hiebert, communications manager for the umbrella organization Hunger Solutions Minnesota.
That is at least temporary stopgap protection for the hungry and people living in poverty. It won’t help farmers seeing their crops disappear with each passing day without rainfall, said former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Bob Bergland, and a former House agriculture leader while a member of Congress from northwestern Minnesota.
“If the House leadership had the votes, we’d have a farm bill by now,” Bergland said in a telephone interview from his home in Roseau. “I don’t think they have the votes. I don’t know how this will play out. It is really getting ugly in Congress.”
Hunger and poverty organizations are asking members and supporters to contact their members of Congress to seek passage of new farm and food legislation, without severe cuts to feeding programs, said the hunger group’s Hiebert. A Senate version of the bill raises eligibility levels for food assistance, called SNAP, which has replaced food stamps. A House version of a bill throws even more obstacles to people’s eligibility.
This is among reasons why the Gallup polling organization reported a week ago that U.S. approval of Congress has fallen to 10 percent, the lowest on record. That approval rating will get worse, Bergland predicted, unless members of Congress “are getting an earful” while home on their August recess break.
That may be happening. The Bread for the World organization has been blogging other food assistance and poverty groups encouraging members to “Tell Your Representative to Support SNAP.” It notes that every $1 in SNAP benefits generates $1.79 in economic activity, and that every $1 billion increase in SNAP benefits increases or maintains 18,000 full-time equivalent jobs, including 3,000 farm jobs as putting food stamp purchasing power in the hands of the poor supports the entire food chain.
Food Support/SNAP programs provided by USDA are helping more than 500,000 Minnesota households maintain incomes above the poverty line, reports Hunger Solutions Minnesota in a fact sheet on “Why the Farm Bill is vital in Minnesota.” Minnesota had a 56 percent increase in SNAP enrollment from 2007-2010, and it has been hitting all age groups. The groups said senior citizens had an 18 percent increase in eligibility in one year.
Charitable organizations such as church groups and community food shelves provide for less than 10 percent of the food needs in Minnesota. Yet, said Sara Nelson-Pallmeyer, director of Minnesota FoodShare nonprofit, demands on food shelves have increased 164 percent in the past decade. That resulted as households struggled with lost jobs from recessions that bookended the last decade.
What Bergland calls “a dysfunctional Congress” is split over having the poor take cuts in food and nutrition programs, effectively paying for farm subsidies and other programs. Senators who must represent entire states and not just more localized Congressional districts have problems taking food away from the hungry. Members of the House who represent urban and low-income districts, Bergland said, won’t support farm programs that trade off food needs for subsidies and other farm programs.
Farm and food legislation was always a bipartisan effort often lead by farm state lawmakers in past decades, Bergland said. That bipartisanship is being lost in an era of deep ideological divides, he said.
An indication of that divide is coming from the U.S. Senate race in Missouri, another large agricultural and food company headquarters state like Minnesota. There, U.S. Rep. Todd Akin, who is running against Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), told a Missouri State Fair audience last week that he opposes federal spending for the National School Lunch Program that feeds 34 million students during the school year, including 650,000 students in his home state.
This food program has operated with bipartisan support since 1946 as health and education researchers constantly point to the linkage of food accessibility, nutrition and school performance. In other words, the school lunch program has been considered food for thought.
Nonetheless, such divergent views in Congress on food programs show why nothing is being done to write new food and farm legislation. “We are handing over a real mess to our grandchildren,” said Bergland.