For Shame: A Farm Bill that Would Leave Millions of Children Hungry

English: Snap Hill above South Heighton Black ...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Given what we’ve learned over the past few weeks about government snooping and the quiet, untimely demise of our tattered right to privacy, it cheered me today to see the Obama White House announce it was actually drawing a line in defense of hungry children, by threatening a veto of the bloated (and much bloviated-over) Farm Bill to be voted on this week in the House of Representatives.

The Farm Bill is always a subsidy-laden Christmas tree for agribusiness, bedecked with the promise of government largesse for commodity crops like the cheap corn that fuels high-fructose corn syrup, thus ensuring that gallon jugs of soda are cheaper than milk. It rolls through DC every five years or so like an obese Mafia don, demanding ever more “respect” with each persistent shake-down. Much of the money in the bill, for example in the form of crop insurance, goes straight into the pockets of big agribusiness, and smaller farms barely see a penny.

This year, however, the slash-and-burn tactics of the Republican leadership have ensured that the bill is even more shameful than usual, because while it leaves in place, and even increases in some places, payments to agri-business, it also cruelly decimates the food stamp program that today provides a skeletal safety net to the poorest people in America. Some 45 percent of food stamp recipients are children, children with almost nothing but the hunger in their bellies. The pittance permitted by the food stamps program, with its meager allowance of $132 per month, gives them only slightly more than nothing.

But even that bare-bones allotment to stave off starvation is evidently too much for this Congress, which would literally take the food out of children’s mouths. I’ve been gratified, in this era of the post-sequester, to see people from Paul Krugman to Sen. Kirsten Gillbrand (D-NY) and Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA) raising the alarm on this and drawing a line in the sand. Thirty Democratic Members of Congress, some of whom were recipients of “public assistance” when they needed it, took a pledge to spend the same as food stamp recipients for a week. It appears that Republicans need reminding that there is a social contract, and that robbing the poorest American children to keep giving money to Archer Daniels Midland and Monsanto ain’t it.

Here’s a few more facts about the food stamp program (called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP) from our friends at Mom’s Rising:

As Krugman explains in his column where he gets justifiably teed off about this sorry state of affairs, we should care about food stamps from both an economic and a parenting-slash-human perspective:

Estimates from the consulting firm Moody’s Analytics suggest that each dollar spent on food stamps in a depressed economy raises G.D.P. by about $1.70 — which means, by the way, that much of the money laid out to help families in need actually comes right back to the government in the form of higher revenue.

Wait, we’re not done yet. Food stamps greatly reduce food insecurity among low-income children, which, in turn, greatly enhances their chances of doing well in school and growing up to be successful, productive adults. So food stamps are in a very real sense an investment in the nation’s future — an investment that in the long run almost surely reduces the budget deficit, because tomorrow’s adults will also be tomorrow’s taxpayers.

The upshot? While some of us, and by that I mean me, are futzing about the glass-bottle organic milk our children drink, in many households here in the rich old US of A, children are not getting enough food of any kind. And Congress is about to make this sad situation much, much worse. In a bill about the food system that shovels billions of taxpayer dollars in the direction of some of the biggest, most appalling companies perched atop our industrial food system.

And the Republican leaders who brought us this revealing debate? Well, as it turns out (with a bow towards the intrepid Environmental Working Group’s research), two of the GOP’s Agriculture Committee members have been, well, shall we call them, “takers”?

Reps. Stephen Fincher (R-Tenn.) and Doug LaMalfa (R-Calif.) both cited the Bible last week to argue that while individual Christians have a responsibility to feed the poor, the federal government does not. “We’re all here on this committee making decisions about other people’s money,” Fincher said. LaMalfa said that while it’s nice for politicians to boast about how they’ve helped their constituents, “That’s all someone else’s money.”

Yet both men’s farms have received millions in federal assistance, according to the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit that advocates for more conservation and fewer subsidies. LaMalfa’s family rice farm has received more than $5 million in commodity subsidies since 1995, according to the group’s analysis of data from the U.S. Agriculture Department. Fincher’s farm has received more than $3 million in that time. Last year alone, Fincher’s farm received $70,574 and LaMalfa’s got $188,570.

I’ll have a sprinkling of sanctimony with that hypocrisy, thanks very much. And pass the plate of malarkey.

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Teed off like Krugman? Here’s how to complain to Congress, courtesy of Mom’s Rising.

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Update:

Of course, as you’ve likely heard by now, the forces of righteousness won this round. The farm bill failed in the House, shocking the hardened political elite who had assumed that hurting poor people utterly lacks political consequences. The measure’s fate is now up in the air, but watch for the return of cuts to SNAP:

Its failure came as a surprise last month, when most Democrats and conservative Republican members voted against the bill; Democrats thought the food stamp assistance in the bill was being cut too much, and the right wing thought these cuts weren’t big enough. Now, it’s unclear whether leadership will try to split off the food and nutrition portion — most of it is funding for food stamps, known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP — from the rest of the bill or try to pass it again intact.

Update #2: An Appalling Disregard

So the House did pass a bill. But unlike in years past, they stripped it of funding for the food stamp program (called “SNAP”). This was a break from tradition, to say the least. Since 1973, the Farm Bill has combined funding for food stamps with those for agricultural subsidies. But not this time: instead, the House-passed version of the bill jeopardizes the food security of 47 million low-income Americans while handing out $196 billion in subsidies to behemoth agribusiness firms.

In response to this appalling state of affairs, Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) called out 14 Republicans who voted for the SNAP-stripped bill. Collectively, the 14 members of Congress have a net worth of $124.5 million and since 1995 received $7.2 million in agricultural subsidies. To be sure, $7.2 is only a low-end estimate of the largesse they’ve received, as a reporting loophole for crop insurance support makes it impossible to know exactly how much has been doled out. Nonetheless, each has received at least $515,279 on average. One of them, Rep. Stephen Fincher (R-Tenn.), has received nearly $3.5 million in subsidies. This kind of naked self-dealing is brazen even for this particular crop of Congress critters, and deserves the condemnation it has gotten. The ultimate fate of the measure remains unknown.

The New (Pay-to-Attend) Food Deserts

I hadn’t had a bite to eat since yesterday, so Jim he got out some corn-dodgers and buttermilk, and pork and cabbage and greens — there ain’t nothing in the world so good when it’s cooked right — and whilst I eat my supper we talked and had a good time. — Huckleberry Finn

And we danced all night
To the fiddle and the banjo.
Their drifting tunes seemed to fill the air.
So long ago, but I can still remember
How we fell in love at the Roseville Fair. — Bill Staines

Over the weekend, we attended the final day of the Montgomery County Agricultural Fair, a sprawling affair of equal parts livestock buildings and carnie rides. Maya loved patting the bunnies, and couldn’t get enough of the cows. And there were these pretty amazing owls.

We enjoyed the day as well — except that we couldn’t find anything even remotely worth eating in the whole durn place. We paid $10 for parking, and another $10 each per adult to get in, so in we were, stuck amongst the barkers and colored balloons.

There were battered and deep-fried oreo cookies, funnel cakes, french fries, pizza and corn dogs, as well as signs touting “fresh squeezed lemonade,” which, it was clear upon sampling, was an utter fiction. I picked at a relatively inoffensive brisket sandwich from the one place selling pit BBQ, and my hubs tried to eat a bit of a “gyro” that sported flabby, texture-less bread, watery, chemical-laden sauces and tubes of mashed meat. Mmm.

A single church-run place sold roasted chicken, and one shack dispensed mostly-naked roasted sweet corn (likely GMO, but still tasty) which at least is actual food. But there was nary a green, orange or rainbow-colored vegetable or fresh fruit to be had, except in the produce tent where the flora was present only to be judged, and not eaten. Cabbages and greens, hah!

Because we were, I dunno, at a county fair, when Maya sensibly asked for “watermelon,” I went searching and turned up zip. Processed dippin’ ice creams? Check. “Premium” ice cream from Turkey Hill loaded with:

HIGH FRUCTOSE CORN SYRUP, NATURAL FLAVORS, CITRIC ACID, MONO & DIGLYCERIDES, GUAR GUM, CARRAGEENAN, RED 40, BLUE 1.

Check. Even the coating on the chocolate covered bananas was chemical-flavored. Though at least the banana couldn’t really be messed with, once you got into it.

Instead of food, stall after stall sold nothing but junk. High-fat, triglyceride-fests on a stick. A poke around the Internet told me the obvious: fairs and festivals have become venues in which vendors compete to see who can deep-fry the most shockingly unhealthy foods– one even sells frozen, battered deep fried sticks of butter. Others hawk fried frozen kool-aid and similarly unnatural feats alongside the fry-battered snickers bars and Oreos.

Now, I’ve been known to appreciate a little key lime pie on a stick sometimes myself. But it was still striking that at a fair bedecked in 4H signs and clearly intended to build our reverence for people who drive tractors, there was no sign of either practitioners of a greener, more sustainable approach to farming — something common now in Maryland — or of any appealing, healthier foodstuffs produced by the aforementioned farmerfolk.

Amidst the cutesy pig races down the “hamstretch” around the Hogway Speedway and tractor pulls designed to stir up nostalgia for our not-so-distant agri-past, something important evidently got lost, which is that people have always best connected to the land by eating its wondrous outputs.

Indeed, the World Fairs, in the mid- and early twentieth century, were places for people to sample international foods that may never have gotten attention from such a broad swath of the population, including a French tent from the 1940 fair that became a popular restaurant in New York, Le Pavilion. Of course, the Fairs were also places for the new industrial processes around food to be debuted and marveled at, such as cotton candy and Wonder Bread.

Fast forward, though, to 2012, and it feels as though the Frankenfood has eaten the fair. Most traces of a home-made past — pickles, preserves, pies — were not for sale. Instead, we got the industrial fryer, loads of sugar, and distracting, hyper-kitschy lights on every surface of the food conveyance truck, as if to say — look here, instead of down at the glistening brown surface of your greasy funnel cake.

At the risk of seeming like I’m not in on the joke, I’m just going to say it: what is so durn “fun” about eating crap served up by fairly miserable people trapped in little metal boxes? We are living in a time in which chemical-laden, highly addictive calories that trip every one of our biological triggers (salt! sugar! fat!) are cheap, and actual food is scarce, despite the ample offerings in every convenience store, every ball park, every amusement park, every beach or public place where the goal is supposed to be entertainment or ease.

But, really, isn’t this just a cheap trick on all of us? A way for us to pony up $5 (which seemed to be the cost of anything at the fair) or more for our own deprivation and illness, gussied up as self-indulgence?

And if we grownups are a lost cause, we should consider that there were thousands of kids at the fair who really had no option except to eat what was given to them. Cass Sunstein, in his book Nudge, described the power of “defaults” in structuring choices — which basically means that we choose from what is in our faces most of the time.

After all, we’re just bodies in space.

And when it comes to things we are biologically predisposed to like, you can bet that the food marketers know exactly how to dangle it in front of us as a form of perilous fun so that we’ll bite. And bite again.

We publicly wring our hands about childhood obesity, and the fact that record and growing numbers of children are acquiring Type 2 diabetes (from somewhere, hmmm), but our public policies allow soda and other sugary junk in our schools, and our public norms are to pay decent money to be admitted to a “fair” that serves our children expensive, dangerous processed swill in place of anything resembling food.

And don’t even get me started on children’s menus at restaurants, which are generally vegetable-free zones made entirely of a newly engineered item known as pizza-hot-dog-pasta-grilled-cheese-chicken-tenders.

Of course, you might say that if I’m going to be this picky, I should always bring along some of my foodie provisions to ensure that we have the uber-organic, sustainably raised squirrel seeds we prefer. And sometimes I do have it together enough to plan ahead and pack snacks. But one of the things about being out in the world is tasting at least some of its flavors, and toting whole meals along for all-day excursions is not a fair expectation for us or other parents, especially when we’ve paid for the privilege of attending some event.

Even when I bring food, that really only takes care of my family. But we need larger solutions to the problem of a lack of nutrition in our public food. And am I really supposed to bring my own grub to a restaurant? Please. In other words, on this one, its really not us, its them.

Unless we start getting ticked off about this pathetic state of affairs, though, I don’t see how things change or how we can get the food marketers’ ugly, deep-fried, doughy fingers off our arteries and those of our kids. I’m working on a friendly but firm letter to the Montgomery County organizers of the fair, asking them for a greater variety of healthier stuff to eat next year. In a pinch, they could set up a green tent as some fairs do, or bring in food trucks with more variety for some of the time, which are options I’ll suggest.

Today’s column by Mark Bittman has more great ideas for how we should really honor farmers and their labors making something essential out of sun, water, and dirt:

  • We need to reduce unemployment and increase the minimum wage (including that for farm and restaurant workers). This (obviously) goes beyond the realm of food, but it’s key to improving the quality of life for many if not most Americans. (Here’s a strong argument for that.)
  • We need to not cut but raise the amount of support we give to recipients of food stamps. A good example is New York City’s Health Bucks program, where food stamps are worth more at farmers’ markets (which don’t, as a rule, sell sugar-sweetened beverages!).
  • We need not only to attack the nonsensical and wasteful system that pays for corn and soybeans to be grown to create junk food and ethanol, but to support local and national legislation that encourages the birth of new small-and-medium farms. We need to encourage both new and established farms to grow a variety of fruits and vegetables, to raise animals in sensible ways and, using a combination of modern and time-tested techniques, treat those animals well and use their products sensibly.

Amen, brother.

I’m also thinking about designing a small, polite but clear card, addressed to the chef, that folks could hand to restaurants to raise the issue of improving offerings on kids’ menus. If you think this is something you would possibly print and use, please let me know.