Eating the American way

Farm Bill debate looks to cut food stamps while farm insurance stays funded despite report of overpayment

Food stamps were removed from the Farm Bill.
US Navy/Christopher Elmini/Wikimedia Commons

Feeding the hungry is darn expensive. In fact, it’s so expensive, according to some members of Congress, that our country can’t afford it anymore.

For the first time since 1973, food stamps may not be part of the Farm Bill.

The Farm Bill usually includes both food stamps for the poor and subsidies paid to farmers, and it usually passes with bipartisan support. The current Farm Bill expires at the end of September, but the 2013 Farm Bill failed in June over disagreements about where to cut spending. So Republicans removed food stamps entirely. Citing excessive government spending, they drafted a separate bill to cut almost $40 billion from food assistance over the next decade. On Sept. 19, the bill narrowly passed the House, largely along party lines. If it passes the Senate, millions of people could lose food stamp benefits in the coming years, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

The Farm Bill, now devoid of food stamps, can focus on subsidies for farmers. These programs (direct payments, crop insurance and some disaster relief) have cost taxpayers $256 billion since 1995, according to the Environmental Working Group, which compiles U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) data.

Sure, you might think: Without farmers, there’s no food — and farmers deserve fair payment for their hard work.

But these payments don’t help the farmers you see at your farmers’ markets.

“We don’t get any of the direct payments,” says Peter Volz, who owns local farm Oxford Gardens. “Small organic farmers don’t really qualify.”

Direct payments are mostly paid to the industries that spend millions to lobby lawmakers.

“Organic growing still only makes up about 1 percent of the agricultural output,” Volz says. “If you’re 1 percent of something, and you’re dealing with Washington, you’re not going to have the political clout.”

While organic farmers don’t qualify for direct payments, city dwellers do. Farmland owners can collect these subsidies — whether they actually grow crops or not. In 2012, residents of the nation’s largest cities received more than $24 million in farm subsidies, according to a report by the Environmental Working Group.

Between 1995 and 2012, the government has spent more than $177.6 billion on commodity subsidies, according to the Environmental Working Group database. Corn, the most heavily subsidized of the commodity crops, has earned its farmers $84 billion in subsidies. The top 10 percent of subsidized farms collected three quarters of all the Farm Bill subsidies. In Boulder County, the bottom 80 percent of subsidized farms received an average of just $140 annually — and 69 percent of farms in Colorado didn’t receive any subsidies at all.

The direct payments may end soon, if Congress can pass the new Farm Bill.

“All indications are that the direct payments won’t be included in the new Farm Bill,” says Wayne Rieger, the county executive director for the Farm Service Agency offices in Boulder and Larimer counties. “The new farm bill is probably going to include more provisions for insurance.”

Crop insurance has overtaken direct payments as the program most important to farmers, according to the Environmental Working Group.

The crop insurance program has its own problems. Like direct payments, it doesn’t help small farmers.

“Small operations generally choose not to participate,” Rieger says, “because the cost is too high.”

That’s not the only reason.

“I’ve tried to get crop insurance,” Volz says. “But when I sat down and went over it with the government office, they didn’t have a category for someone with a farm like ours. … They’re used to acres of barley, corn or wheat.”

In 2012, crop insurance cost more than $14 billion in taxpayer money, according to a recent report by the Congressional Research Service.

More than $1 billion of these taxpayer dollars covered operating costs for the private insurance companies, according to the CRS report. The companies are basically guaranteed to profit under crop insurance programs, because the government covers any crop losses beyond a predetermined limit. During several years analyzed by the Congressional Research Service, the government has lost money under this program by providing “insurance for insurance companies,” according to the report.

This crop insurance program, which is also said to encourage nonsensical planting by guaranteeing that big farms can’t lose, is expanding.

The farm and insurance lobbies spent at least $52 million influencing lawmakers in the 2012 election cycle, according to Bloomberg. And it’s easy to see why they’d lobby for the crop insurance program. When the USDA’s inspector general revealed in August that the USDA overpaid farmers by more than $20 million in 2012, the biggest overpayments — totaling more than $15 million of the unwarranted $20 million — were made through the crop insurance program.

No overpayments were made in the USDA’s food stamp program, according to the same inspector general’s report.

But food stamps must be cut, according to conservative leaders. Apparently, food stamps are encouraging surfer dudes and wannabe rock stars to become lazy layabouts who live off the American taxpayer — at least that’s the message of a special recently aired by Fox News.

“That image is very off-base,” says Barbara O’Neil, the executive director of Harvest of Hope, a Boulder food bank. “We see hardworking parents. Often, in the families, it’s just one working parent.”

At Boulder’s Emergency Family Assistance Association, the lazy musicians of Fox News lore are equally hard to find.

“We hardly have any young people,” says Liz Rowland, the food bank manager at the Emergency Family Assistance Association. “A lot of our people do work. A lot of them are on fixed income, because they have some kind of disability, or because they’re older. … People are trying. They need these food stamps.”

And food stamps aren’t exactly affording them a life of luxury.

“About 60 percent of the people who come through here receive [food stamps],” O’Neil says. “And they still need the supplemental food we provide.”

That supplemental food might be limited soon, too.

“We get food each month that’s subsidized by the Farm Bill under food assistance funding,” Rowland says. “If they cut food stamps funding, we’d probably lose on two fronts, because a lot of our people use a multi-tiered approach to feed themselves.”

The food bank might lose funding to provide food — just as hungry populations need it even more.

If food stamps are cut, it’s unlikely that deadbeats will be the only ones to suffer. Almost half of all food stamp recipients are children, according to The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a Washington think-tank. That’s an estimated 22 million kids.

“The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat,” Rep. Stephen Fincher (R-Tenn.) reportedly said while defending food stamp cuts. That’s hard to do if you’re a child.

He may not like food stamps, but Fincher did support a proposal to expand crop insurance. He knows how much this program helps Americans: As an owner of farm land, he has personally collected millions in farm subsidies, according to several media sources, including MSNBC.

But food stamps? That’s like stealing “other people’s money,” the congressman says.