In 2010, 18 percent of the country — nearly one in five households — reported not having enough money to provide food at some point during the year. Last month, food prices increased by 3.9 percent, in the largest jump since 1974. Vegetable prices increased by nearly fifty percent, driven in part by weather disasters damaging crops in place such as Australia and Russia.
These trends are occurring at the same time that unemployment has remained unacceptably high, leaving many Americans with nothing but the social safety net standing between them and going hungry. But as National Journal’s Tim Fernholz reported, the House Agriculture Committee has called for a reduction in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps) in a letter to House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI):
One part of the agriculture budget that has seen increases is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) where spending has tripled over the last ten years. Given the economic downturn and high unemployment which has left many Americans with few options, an increase in nutrition assistance spending is to be expected….But much of the cost increase has come through government action as opposed to the kind of macroeconomic forces that naturally result in increased subscriptions.
The letter’s co-authors — House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R-OK) and ranking member Collin Peterson (D-MN) — are correct that, in the face of the Great Recession, food stamp benefits were increased. But those increased benefits have (unfortunately) already been reduced to pay for a jobs bill that Congress passed last year.
And at the same time they’re pointing to food stamps as an area ripe for cuts, Lucas and Peterson say that the tens of billions in annual agriculture subsides that the U.S. provides should be off-limits for reductions. At the moment, 61 percent of the subsidies that the U.S. provides for agriculture go to just ten percent of recipients. Though some restrictions on rich farmers receiving subsidies were placed into the 2008 farm bill, they were mostly ineffective. And entrenched lawmakers on the agriculture committee help to keep it that way:
The 15 congressional districts receiving the most in payments accounted for about a quarter of all farm aid…Representatives from nine of those districts serve on the House Agriculture Committee, including the panel’s top Democrat and Republican.
At the moment, 90 percent of agriculture subsidies go toward the production of just five crops — corn, wheat, rice, soy and cotton. “Most of that 90 percent went to the large farming corporations,” said Annie Shattuck of the Institute for Food & Development Policy. “Much of those commodities were not used for food, but for animal feed and industrial applications. Cotton is not even a food.” Yet lawmakers on the Agriculture Committee feel that this wasteful spending is more important than helping Americans families weather the Great Recession.