Food for Thought: An analysis of the recently passed Farm Bill
Some question whether its passage is a victory or a failure. After all, the Farm Bill is not a perfect piece of legislation. There has been an unending parade of opinion pieces written about its shortfalls. Among other things, its critics argue, it continues a system of payments to American farmers that distort world trade, undermine small farmers in developing countries, and frankly, just don’t make much policy sense. It has been denigrated as a scam, a testament to the way in which special interests dominate American politics.
But tell that to the millions of low-income Americans who will receive an increase in their food stamp benefit. Explain it to the millions more who will get increased relief from our nation’s food banks, even as food prices are inflating at an alarming rate.
I’m not writing to issue a blanket endorsement of the Farm Bill; the Farm Bill’s critics have some solid and important points about how subsidies and direct payments found in Title I of this large and complex bill incentivize undesirable behaviors and undermine international anti-poverty work. However, what people often forget is that members of Congress don’t usually have the choice between “perfect” legislation and “terrible” legislation; they are often choosing between a complex set of good and bad outcomes all rolled up into one bill on which they must vote a simple “yes” or “no,” endorsing or rejecting the good and the bad all at once.
Critics have slammed the legislation, without acknowledging that 73 percent of the bill’s total amount will be dedicated to nutrition programs, and that almost ALL of the new money invested above the baseline (to the tune of $10.36 billion) is allotted to nutrition programs. Of that 73 percent, almost all the funding is targeted to low-income Americans in programs such as Food Stamps, which is widely hailed as an effective and sound investment from members of all political parties. Among other things, the Farm Bill will:
- Increase purchasing power in the food stamp program. Today, the average food stamp benefit is just $1/meal per person and the minimum monthly benefit has been stuck at $10/month since 1977. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, changes in this year’s farm would provide the average working family of three with an additional $4-$5 more each month in food stamp benefits in 2009 – and as much as $17/month by 2017 (when adjusted for inflation). When combined with benefits for single-member households, these changes will benefit over 11 million low-income people, including vulnerable populations such as children, seniors and people with disabilities.
- Support low-income working families by eliminating the cap on the dependent care deduction, effectively eliminating penalties for finding safe and decent child care.
- Encourage savings and asset-building byraising the Food Stamp program’s resource limits and not counting tax-preferred retirement accounts and education accounts toward the asset limit.
- Simplify and streamline administration of the Food Stamp Program.
- Help emergency food assistance organizationssuch as food banks, food pantries, and soup kitchens in meeting rising demand coupled with skyrocketing food prices by increasing annual funding for The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) from $140 million to $250 million and adjusting this amount for food inflation.
- Increase the availability of and access to fresh fruits and vegetables in low- income schools by investing over $1 billion in expanding the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program under the National School Lunch Act.
- Increase funding for promoting farmer’s markets and help small growers pay organic certification fees.
In the context of an economic downturn and the rising costs of food, this is a hugely important victory on behalf of low-income families across the United States.
Perhaps one of the least covered outcomes of the Farm Bill is not found in the legislation itself, but in the mobilization that led to the bill’s passage. The 2007 Farm Bill can be seen as a turning point in Jewish communal activism on hunger and poverty. Last September, JCPA led hundreds of Jews in over 30 communities across the country in taking the “food stamp challenge”, living on $1/meal for a week to show the inadequacy of the benefit and prove the nutritional deficiencies in such a diet. Jewish agencies and communities built interfaith coalitions and recruited faith, civic and political leaders to take the food stamp challenge with them, including 4 members of Congress, state legislators and city officials. They forged new partnerships and created new mobilizing structures that succeeded in advocating for the strongest possible nutrition title in a tight budget year.
These are the untold success stories of an imperfect bill. Do I personally wish that the Farm Bill had undergone more reform this year? YES. Am I proud of the robust nutrition title and the transformative work that the Jewish community undertook to make it happen? You can bet the farm on it!