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Food stamp program timeline brings about farm bill debate

ST. PAUL -- More than just corn growers and cattle ranchers are affected by congressional debate over the next farm bill. Americans who have never milked a cow or who cannot tell wheat from alfalfa also will be affected. The legislation plays a r...

ST. PAUL -- More than just corn growers and cattle ranchers are affected by congressional debate over the next farm bill.

Americans who have never milked a cow or who cannot tell wheat from alfalfa also will be affected. The legislation plays a role in the state's rural and metropolitan economies, uses tax money to support farmers and influences grocery prices. And it helps the poor.

But with the current Capitol Hill debate rife with congressional jargon, the farm bill's importance is easy to overlook.

"As long as grocery stores are well stocked ... the consuming public is pretty lackadaisical," said Bob Bergland, a former Minnesota congressman from Roseau and President Carter's agriculture secretary.

Known as the farm bill, the legislation actually includes agriculture policy, nutrition programs and energy, conservation and rural development initiatives. Its core intent, dating back to the 1930s, essentially is to stabilize the nation's food supply -- and its cost. Farm bill programs can be used to control how much of a particular crop is grown, to minimize a production shortage or overabundance, which could in turn affect farmers' incomes and the price paid by consumers.

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But the largest portion of the farm bill has little to do with farms. The nutrition section, which is composed mostly of the federal food stamp program, constituted 70 percent of spending in the 2002 farm bill. That law is set to expire later this month, prompting the current farm bill debate on Capitol Hill.

More than 260,000 Minnesotans used food stamps in 2006, bringing $284 million in federal nutrition funds into the state, according to data collected by the Washington-based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, which tracks how budget decisions affect lower-income people.

"It's clearly a critical income support to a not-insignificant portion of the state," said Stacy Dean, the center's director of food stamp and child nutrition policy.

Nutrition programs are used for political purposes in the farm bill. Rural lawmakers can gain support for agriculture programs from their urban counterparts by including sweetening proposed nutrition spending. As author of the House farm bill, Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., said he needed to increase nutrition programs in part to gain support for the agriculture legislation from urban colleagues.

"If nutrition wasn't in there, the commodity programs wouldn't be there," said Kent Olson, a University of Minnesota economics professor who studies the farm bill.

The farm bill authorizes taxpayer dollars to be used to subsidize farmers' income, one of the most controversial elements of the legislation. Watchdog groups that monitor federal spending and lawmakers opposed to subsidies fight for tighter subsidy requirements, while southern lawmakers representing farmers with large operations have traditionally led attempts to block limits on those assistance programs.

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