Food for thought

On Friday, President Obama traveled to Michigan State to stand symbolically next to a tractor and sign the almost $1 trillion farm bill. The farm bill is long overdue and was passed through the Senate last Tuesday after several years of debates. Despite the agricultural setting for the stamp-of-approval, the name of the bill is in many ways a misnomer. While some of the topics covered in the bill affect farmers directly, this year’s farm bill also includes cuts to the American food stamps program, now formally known as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits and changes to the labeling requirements of meats and nuts. Both of those changes affect millions of people in America, and yet the farm bill came and went without much public buzz. I think that the word “farm” may turn people away from looking at the bill because they do not think that it pertains to them. The bottom line is that the important legislative decisions being made in the farm bill affect far more people than just farmers. Here are some reasons why the farm bill may be of interest to you.

Around 47 million Americans receive SNAP benefits – about one in seven. Knowing this, it takes far less than six degrees of separation to connect yourself to the farm bill. The majority of the bill’s yearly costs go to SNAP benefits, which is the foremost reason that the term “farm” bill is misleading. The final bill signed by Obama on Friday cuts about one percent (about $8 million) of the money currently going to SNAP over the next decade. This money will be cut in a number of ways. First, the bill will crack down on states that use federal heating assistance to bolster people’s SNAP benefits. The bill will also save by preventing the Agricultural Department from advertising the program and trying to prevent the program from being misused. The effects of these cuts are yet to be seen, but it is estimated that hundreds of thousands of households will have their benefits reduced by about $90 monthly. Some argue that these cuts are merely the closing of loopholes. For the most part, these are the same people who were hoping to cut the program by $400 million instead of $8 million last summer. Others are already preparing for a massive influx of hungry people in food shelters. For reference for those of us residing in Massachusetts, both Senator Elizabeth Downing, D-Mass., and Senator Edward Markey, D-Mass., voted against the bill, which passed through the Senate 68 to 32.

What I find most devastating about the cuts to SNAP are their juxtaposition to the cuts that aren’t being made in the rest of the farm bill. As Senator Markey said in an interview with The Boston Globe, “Instead of stopping wasteful aid to the wealthiest farmers, the farm bill slashes SNAP benefits for the poorest Americans, the elderly and disabled. We have a dire hunger problem in this country, and cuts to the SNAP program will only make it worse” (The Boston Globe, “Senate Passes Long-Stalled Farm bill, With Clear Winners and Losers,” Feb. 4).

The aid Markey is referring to is the controversial farm subsidies program. Before this bill, farmers received a direct payment of a fixed amount of money for the amount of land they owned, whether or not that land was planted. About $4.5 billion was given annually. The new bill repeals these direct payments and expands subsidies under the crop insurance program, so farmers will now have to pay an annual insurance bill and will only receive government support once they have experienced losses. This change increases the amount of money spent on farm subsidies by about $7 billion. This is a huge gain for private crop insurance companies who receive an average of $1.4 billion a year from the government on top of making billions of dollars in profits. The bill also includes a provision that prevents the Agriculture Department from renegotiating with the insurance companies to lower those rates over time.

The pendulum swing toward crop insurance also makes the use of the word “farmer” to describe the beneficiaries of this subsidy program a bit dubious. There are no limits on these subsidies based on income level, so the “farmers” who benefit the most from this program are large agribusinesses. The Environmental Working Group estimates that 80 percent of farmers collect only $5000 annually, and that a small group can collect up to a million. But even those numbers are only rough estimates because the farm bill also maintains a provision to keep the names of individual businesses secret, making it even harder to see exactly where the money is going.

The farm bill is not glamorous. It’s nearly 1000 pages long and wordy and may include some topics that you do not care about. But it also contains some information that will affect your life, or somebody who you know, whether you care about it or not. The now required “Country of Origin Labels” for meats and nuts will certainly be on a product you buy, if the reasons above are not enough to spark your interest. The farm bill is in place for the next five years, and the shortcomings of its policies may become more obvious as time passes. Now is the time to learn about the farm bill and what it might mean for you in the coming years.

Megan Bantle ’14 is an English major from Adams, Mass. She lives on Main Street.