The fall semester ended on Friday; while my students are busily finishing their final papers, I have a while to sit and reflect on the semester. In addition to thoroughly enjoying my food systems courses (one international and one domestic), I was fortunate enough to sit in on a course on the farm bill, taught by my colleague, Marion Nestle. The class was fascinating, full of political and economic discussions, and I managed to fill in *some* of my knowledge gaps. In a way, I find it amazing that over the course of my dozen years at the Economic Research Service, I spent virtually no time thinking about the farm bill in a serious way.
But, as we all know, the farm bill matters because it is the main (but not only) piece of legislation for implementing agricultural and food policy. The pressure is especially heightened this year because of the hoopla in Congress about reining in government spending. I am going to partially avoid the question of whether that is smart economic policy (except to say that I think it is not), and focus on the reality of how some politicians might chose to gut important programs, under the guise of fiscal responsibility. The two most vulnerable types of programs – from the perspective of the food movement- are intended to protect the environment and those intended to increase food access. The nutrition programs, as my colleague pointed out in her course, are colored by our discomfort with the poor. As a result, we are unable to freely support the less well off, but instead cloak the food and other need-based programs (food stamps, school lunch, etc) in a cloak of shame and judgment (my words). I have encountered this attitude in some people, who say “let’s stop handing out food stamps so people will decide to get back to work.” Frankly, I don’t understand that attitude. I can’t imagine that the roughly $40 per person, per week, of food stamps is enough to keep people from working. Anyway, saying “we can’t afford it” might be a good excuse for reducing benefits, even in a time of rising need, such as we are in today. Environmental programs, such as the Conservation Stewardship Program, which I will begin discussing tomorrow, are potentially subject to the same fate.