The federal government is subsidizing junk food, but it's not doing enough to make sure Americans can afford to eat real food. That's according to Congressman Earl Blumenauer, who held a press conference, Aug 28, along with the Oregon State Public Interest Group.
"The Farm Bill is the most important healthcare bill, economic development bill and environmental bill that almost nobody has heard of," Rep. Blumenauer said, in front of a mound of Twinkies and half an apple.
"It involves billions of dollars every year and it touches the practice of farming around the country."
The Farm Bill will expire Sept. 30, so it must either be renewed or reformed before that date. So when Congress resumes after the summer break, Washington politicians will have just eight days to agree on a bill. It's an opportunity, Blumenauer says, to end wasteful payments to huge Agricultural companies that produce commodity crops, and to support healthy eating by helping farmers who grow fruit and vegetables.
"In Oregon agriculture is a very, very important industry, but we get almost nothing from the federal government," Blumenauer pointed out. "Eighty-seven percent of Oregon farmers get nothing at all to help them."
Rep. Schrader Hopeful for Improvement
The Farm Bill covers a wide range of food issues in addition to the subsidies. It covers food stamps as well as crop insurance, incentives to keep water supplies clean, and research grants for food production.
Oregon Rep. Kurt Schrader, who serves on the House Agricultural Committee, says the Senate already has passed a Farm Bill that includes important reforms, and the House Committee has worked out a similar bill. If the House of Representatives votes in favor, the bills will go to reconciliation where negotiators work out a final version.
"The 2012 Farm Bill looks to be a huge improvement," he says. "Both versions make huge inroads on eliminating some of the direct subsidies that are going to Agribusiness. That's a big deal."
Schrader said Republicans and Democrats in the House agreed on the subsidy cuts. They also agreed to place caps that limit payments for crop insurance, and to increase support for organic farming, farm to school programs and farm to seniors programs. Money for research also will help Oregon fruit and vegetable producers, Schrader said.
Food stamps now known as the SNAP program, were more controversial. Republican legislators had difficulty understanding why more people are on food stamps now than at the start of the recession, Schrader said.
"It makes sense because people have lost their savings," he said, noting that 20 percent of Oregonians now need food assistance.
The Senate bill would reduce the SNAP program by $4 billion, while the House bill reduces SNAP by $16 billion. While Schrader hopes the final result will be closer to the Senate figure, it took a battle to keep the reductions that low, he said. Schrader praised Rep. Frank Lucas of Oklahoma, chair of the agricultural committee, for his courage in preserving SNAP, despite pressure from inside his party.
"Republicans wanted to take out $33 billion," he said. "We have these hard core Tea Partiers on the committee who wanted to double the amount taken out. But since they won't vote for the bill anyway, we were able to keep it at $16 billion."
Report Shows Big Subsidies to Junk Food
OSPIRG has just published a report on the issue, "Apples to Twinkies 2012: Comparing Taxpayer Subsidies for Fresh Produce and Junk food."
The report compares the amount of federal money going to subsidizing junk food to amount subsidizing apples. Apples are one of a handful of healthy foods that qualify for subsidies.
OSPIRG found that between 1995-2011 taxpayers spent $18.2 billion on subsidies for corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, corn starch and soy oils. Yet in the same time period, apple subsidies amounted to just $637 million. OSPIRG also found that 75 percent of those subsidies went to just 3.8 percent of farmers – a small number of large operations.
"Our agricultural policy is skewed towards a few farmers in a handful of states that grow commodities and not food," Blumenauer said. "We need a farm bill for Oregon, for this century. We want to put an end to subsidizing commodities that are supersizing our kids, supersizing the deficit and actually hurting the environment, while making it harder for Oregon farmers to thrive."
OSPIRG says the current crop insurance system is part of the problem because the more valuable the crops, the higher the taxpayer subsidy. Crop insurance cost taxpayers $11 billion last year.
"Last year the agricultural sector made over $98 billion in profit," OSPIRG notes in the report.
"Unlike other agricultural subsidy programs, the federal crop insurance program is not currently subject to payment limitations or caps. Earlier this year, the GAO (Government Accounting Office) found that just 4 percent of the most profitable farm operations accounted for nearly 33 percent of all premium support provided by the federal government."
Blumenauer hopes Americans will press Congress to end subsidies to businesses that grow commodity crops, such as corn, rice, cotton, wheat and soy. Those five crops receive 90 percent of commodity subsidies, which cost taxpayers $10 billion a year. Commodity crops typically are processed into food additives such as corn syrup and hydrogenated vegetable oils—products with almost no nutritional value, but plenty of calories.
Junk food has been connected to childhood obesity, diabetes and heart disease. Rates of childhood obesity have tripled in the last 30 years.