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.

Rachel Carson’s Unfinished Work: Passing the Safe Chemicals Act

She took me to her elfin grot,
And there she wept, and sigh’d fill sore,
And there I shut her wild wild eyes
With kisses four.

And there she lulled me asleep,
And there I dream’d—Ah! woe betide!
The latest dream I ever dream’d
On the cold hill’s side.

I saw pale kings and princes too,
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
They cried—“La Belle Dame sans Merci
Hath thee in thrall!”

I saw their starved lips in the gloam,
With horrid warning gaped wide,
And I awoke and found me here,
On the cold hill’s side.

And this is why I sojourn here,
Alone and palely loitering,
Though the sedge is wither’d from the lake,
And no birds sing.

— John Keats, “La Belle Dame Sans Merci”

Several Sundays ago, the fates conspired to give me a gift. A friend proposed we go for an easy hike close to home, and she found the perfect place northwest of Silver Spring, the Rachel Carson Conservation Park, a small, beautiful park marked with easy walking trails and decorated this time of year by gorgeous milkweed pods.

The minute after I got in the car to drive out there, Maya fell asleep, mercifully allowing me to turn the radio on. At just that moment, WAMU was re-broadcasting a re-run of The Diane Rehm Show’s interview with William Souder, an author of a new biography about none other than Rachel Carson entitled On a Farther Shore. The interview was great, filling in a fascinating picture of Rachel Carson as a loner who lived with her mother and had a years-long romantic attachment to a female friend. She lived near Silver Spring, Maryland, when she wasn’t at Woods Hole or a seaside cottage in Maine.

Tragically, and even ironically, despite her status as a biologist, she was deceived by a sexist, paternalistic doctor about the seriousness of her own cancer, and the delay in treatment likely cost years of her life. Even as she faced death, she was savvy enough to keep the news of her illness to herself, fearing that it would cast a shadow of self-interest over the publication of Silent Spring.

It would be hard, today, to underestimate the cultural and political importance of Silent Spring. As Souder noted, it is widely credited with giving birth to the modern environmental movement as an oppositional movement of complaint about the excesses of chemicals, corporations and the lack of protective standards for health. It was the hinge on which the environmental movement turned from a Roosevelt-era conservation and stewardship mindset into a full-blown critique.

The title of the book is a brilliant reference to Keats’ poem, and to our capture by a seductive maiden tinged with death. The book made such an impact on public consciousness, and was so deeply frightening to the chemical industry, in particular, that it also occasioned the first major effort in counter-environmentalism, inspiring companies like Monsanto to organize a comprehensive public relations campaign to discredit both author and book.

In Toxic Sludge Is Good For You, John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton describe how the National Agricultural Chemical Association (now called the American Crop Protection Association (ACPA)), created a multi-layered buffer of pseudo-science front groups and PR offensives to offset the anticipated negative publicity in 1962 from publication of Silent Spring. As the recent Chicago Tribune series on the chemical industry’s use of front groups to scare lawmakers into requirements for flame retardants shows, these kinds of tactics remain stunningly common today.

So we’ve had 50 years of “malarky” on chemicals, really. Fifty years of obfuscation, delay, and ineffectual state and federal efforts to balance the benefits of certain chemicals with the threat to public health that some of them pose. Fifty years of “buyer beware” policies that expose people to chemicals first — sometimes in massive doses, such as in factories — and ask questions about their impact on our health later.

Fifty years of chemical Wac-a-mole, in which we celebrate a product becoming “BPA-Free!” (like in tomato cans) only to find out they are now using vinyl instead, thereby replacing an endocrine disrupter with a known carcinogen. Yay.

Fifty years from today, my hope is that we will look back and think of the twentieth century as the Wild West for chemicals — the painful growing pains we endured before development of a sensible system of safeguards signaled our maturity. When my daughter Maya is my age, I hope that the essentially unregulated use of chemicals throughout our agriculture and households will seem as distant a threat to her as the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Fire seems to us today — an unthinkably wasteful expenditure of human lives in pursuit of easy profits.

And fifty years after the publication of Silent Spring, I can’t help but think that Rachel Carson would be appalled by this state of things. Her scientific faith in rational methods would, it would seem, want us to have arrived upon a more elegant and reasonable solution. As many of her defenders have noted, even as to DDT, Carson’s criticism was balanced with an acknowledgment of its benefits for pest reduction (and malaria prevention). She urged that indiscriminate spraying was not the best use of the chemical, and should be replaced with more targeted and effective use. (Even Wikipedia has a nice write-up on this point.)

In striking such a balance, the most compelling proposals are in a law already pending today, the Safe Chemicals Act. That bill, which passed out of committee over the summer in the Senate, would create important new protections for health, while still allowing many safer chemicals to be sold. It’s similar to a law that is already on the books in Europe, in that it would require chemicals to be shown to be safe before we are all used as guinea pigs by the chemical companies.

From a fact sheet on the bill from Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families:

  • The Safe Chemicals Act improves chemical safety. For the first time, the chemical industry must develop and provide information on the health and environmental safety of their chemicals, in order to enter or remain on the market. If no information is provided, the chemical would be prohibited from use in products and workplaces. Where there is data that shows potential concern, chemicals must be proven safe before entering commerce, just as is already required of pharmaceuticals and pesticides under other laws.
  • Immediate action on the worst chemicals. EPA must immediately reduce exposure to the “worst of the worst” chemicals, specifically PBTs (chemicals that are persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic). Common PBTs include lead, mercury, flame retardants, and other toxic compounds that build up and persist in our bodies, breast milk and the environment.
  • The Safe Chemicals Act protects our health using the best science. Many toxic chemicals especially threaten the health of pregnant women, developing fetuses, babies, young children and teens. Other uniquely vulnerable groups include the elderly, people with preexisting medical conditions, workers, and low-income communities—predominantly people of color—located near chemical hot spots. When determining a chemical’s safety, EPA would be required to ensure protection of vulnerable sub-populations, such as children, pregnant women and hot-spot communities, from all sources of exposure to that chemical.
  • The Safe Chemicals Act informs the market, consumers and the public. As a consumer you have the right to know the safety of chemicals you encounter everyday. The Safe Chemicals Act requires that basic health and safety information on chemicals be made public.

And here’s how to contact your Members of Congress today to ask them to support the Safe Chemicals Act. Even if it may not pass the Senate this term, your support will be duly registered for the next session of Congress.

As we strolled around the small, sparse sanctuary named after Carson, with scratchy mouths from munching on wild persimmons tempered by the sweetness of some late-season blackberries, I couldn’t help thinking about her solitary life and intense privacy, her untimely death, her hard work and courage. As her parting act, Carson gave us all a fundamental critique of carelessness, of our lack of intention in how we do things and who we do them to.

Fifty years out, the least we can do to honor her life and legacy is to enact commonsense standards that protect wildlife and our lives from chemical excess. All politics and spin aside, it seems so simple, really, to do the two things she would ask of us: to care for one another, and to think before we act.