With the Washington political focus on Iraq, other priorities will get little public attention, including the efforts of a wide variety of groups to encourage major reforms in the Farm Bill.
Farm Bill? It’s really a food bill, because it strongly influences most aspects of our food system.
Past farm bills — and the current version as passed by the House of Representatives — represent an unsustainable approach to food and agriculture that imposes huge costs on the health of people and the health of our rural and natural environments. Increasing rates of child obesity and hunger, and the loss of family farms and cropland, are the most visible signs of this.
As a longtime analyst of local food systems and an advocate for strengthening them, it is clear to me that major changes are needed in the Senate and final versions of the bill.
Reform of obsolete funding priorities is crucial if we are to ensure our long-term food security.
Farm bill spending to support nonfood commodities has far exceeded all other programs, even though two-thirds of farmers receive no crop subsidies. The top 1% of those who do received 17% of the total crop subsidies for 2003-2005. Nutrition programs — mainly the Food Stamp program — are not funded at levels needed to meet either inflation or the increasing numbers that need help. Conservation programs to protect erodible land are threatened by non-farm bill subsidies for ethanol and biodiesel that encourage farmers to plant corn and soy on more of their conservation and regular cropland to produce fuels, something that has already raised food prices.
Finally, a number of existing small and innovative programs aimed at rebuilding more sustainable and secure foundations for our food systems are threatened by the House bill.
These include the USDA’s Community Food Projects Competitive Grants Program. First authorized by Congress in 1996, the CFP program has provided grants to cities, towns and rural counties to develop grassroots solutions to local and regional food, nutrition and agriculture problems.
In Michigan, CFP grants have helped boost local food production and marketing in Clare, Kent, Ottawa and Van Buren Counties; helped Lansing area farmers’ markets link growers with low-income neighborhoods; helped low-income communities in west Michigan plan local food and nutrition improvements; and in the Detroit area, supported two groups to promote local gardening, community farms and locally based retail outlets in neglected neighborhoods.
The CFP has funded similar innovative programs in all 50 states. And this with only $5 million in annual mandatory funding.
While the House did recommend $30 million for the CFP in its bill, this was as discretionary funding, which makes it unlikely the CFP will be funded at all, since it is also unlikely, given the Iraq war, that there will be any surplus funds available.
If these budget priorities are not changed, it will mean the end of this innovative program and many others that help local communities and regions enhance their food security.
I urge you to join me in contacting Michigan U.S. Sens. Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow about the Farm Bill, especially Stabenow, who is on the Senate Agriculture Committee. Let them know how important it is to invest more in conservation, hunger mitigation, healthy foods, and particularly innovative programs like Community Food Projects.
KENNETH A. DAHLBERG is professor emeritus of political science and environmental studies at Western Michigan University. Write to him in care of the Free Press Editorial Page, 615 W. Lafayette, Detroit, MI 48226 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. .