EDITORIAL: Is this what a law should do?

THERE’S PLENTY TO TALK ABOUT in the farm bills adopted by the U.S. House and Senate, important and welcome changes that might help dairy, fruit and vegetable, and livestock farmers in Columbia County. Funny, then, that for all the promises to save taxpayers billions, one part that doesn’t get as much publicity is the overall cost.

It’s reportedly a measly $1 trillion or so on various forms of agriculture over the next decade, and we’ve become blasé about numbers that size since bailing out the big banks. Besides, when you break it down, that trillion dollars (give or take) works out to less than $100 billion a year. And when you divide that by the population, assuming I’ve got my zeroes straight, it works out to roughly $300 a year for each person in this country to support the activities that feed us and provide the clothing we wear that’s not made of plastic.

Congressman Chris Gibson (R-20th) spoke with Columbia County farmers this week about the farm bill and the parts of it that would have a direct impact on their livelihoods, including a new approach to cushioning the impact on dairy farmers of wild swings in the wholesale price of milk. It’s called a “risk management” approach that may help local farmers ride out tough economic times and the damage from storms, drought and whatever curveballs climate change has in store for us.

This and other programs, like loans to provide more access in rural areas to broadband communications and programs that help younger people who want to give farming a try underscore the important role that government plays in assuring that there’s an opportunity for individuals who want to work the land and that there’s still some farmland to work that isn’t controlled by multinational agri-business. Maybe not everyone who voted for the bill sees it that way; there are benefits in the bill for industrial-scale farming too. But in this hyper-partisan era, the bills reminds us that Republicans and Democrats might agree on some issues of national importance.

Then there’s this other part of the bill that doesn’t seem to have much to do with farming at all. It hasn’t gotten much attention either, even though it’s the largest expenditure in the current farm bill and is the place where the greatest amounts would be cut–billions of dollars over the decade. This part of the bill is called food stamps, now renamed the Supplemental Nutrition Program (SNAP).

The use of food stamps has risen sharply since 2009 and the onset of the Great Recession. We can all hope the use will decline again as the economy recovers. But the slow pace of the recovery has prolonged the need for food stamps. Too bad, then, for the three to five million people who are projected to lose this food assistance if the House bill’s proposed $16 billion cut in nutrition programs over the next 10 years becomes law. The Senate was slightly more thoughtful, proposing to cut a little less from food assistance to people who can’t make ends meet.

Ask around and it won’t take long to find people in Columbia County who’ve been laid off and who look for work or maybe have a job that doesn’t pay enough to make ends meet and who need food stamps to get by. Include children, seniors or folks with disabilities. Food stamps help them, too.

Politicians are right when they say that cuts have to be made somewhere. No government program should be exempt, including food stamps. But what good does it do our farmers if fewer people have money to buy their food? Farming once served as the cornerstone of strong communities in this county, so how does hunger enhance the strength of the places we live and work?

There are parts of the farm bill that deserve praise and support, like ending direct payments to farmers who don’t grow food. Mr. Gibson’s work on behalf of allowing schools to choose local produce rather than government supplies and his support of food stamps at farmers markets are positive steps. And yet this progress can’t mask how the farm bills undermine what we like to think of as our shared values of common sense and decency.

Strange isn’t it that something lawmakers call a farm bill can find no better way of balancing the budget than taking food away from those who can least afford to lose it.

 

 

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