Big-farm subsidies vs. food stamps: Whose plate will Congress fill?

When disaster hits, everything else just seems irrelevant. Hurricane Katrina has surely topped the list of human suffering that demands our immediate collective attention. And we must give it the full attention it deserves, right now. But in spite of this horror we continue to deal with, Congress will eventually get back to business as usual, making policies that affect our lives in real ways every day.

I find it a bit frightening that in spite of this natural disaster our government seems destined to enact legislation that will hurt millions of people living on the edge - the poor, the sick, and the elderly - the same folks left behind to suffer the consequences of Katrina.

Very soon, the Senate is scheduled to make some difficult choices about how the nation spends its agriculture dollars - a mandate to cut $3 billion in the agriculture budget over the next five years will force reductions in some programs.In my state, that decision boils down to whether four big farmers will have to suffer with a $250,000 cap on their government subsidy or half a million people will have to quit eating. The real problem is that we are actually considering the latter.

The food stamp program gives 544,744 Kentuckians access to enough money to adhere to a "thrifty food plan." For a family of four, that equals $471 a month - about $1.31 per meal per person. I wish whoever developed the plan did the grocery shopping at my house. Most of the recipients are from working families, and food stamps subsidize their grocery budget and allow them to balance precariously housing, healthcare, child care, transportation, and other minor life crises that come their way.

Conversely, the farm subsidy program, which was created during the depression to help small family farms, has morphed into $11 billion a year in government payments to large-scale commercial farms nationwide. Only about $4 billion actually makes it to those small family farmers today. My guess would be that capping those subsidy payments at a mere quarter million would hardly put any of those huge commercial farms out of business.

Hunger and poor nutrition have real consequences for everyone, not just those who don't get to eat well. Related health issues have a more far reaching impact on our national budget than agriculture. But for every $5 of food stamps spent at a local grocery, we generate almost $10 in total economic activity - not a bad return.

The spirit of the farm subsidy program is an equally good investment. Even with food stamps, in rural areas we suffer from a lack of access to fresh fruits and vegetables for reasons that go way beyond grocery money. Our nation has almost completely divested itself from community building and investment in rural areas - the very foundation of American culture. It's not just that we don't have family farms anymore; many rural communities don't even have supermarkets. And if they do, they don't have transportation to get to them. Jobs are scarce and economic development mostly involves the creation of services to help take care of the maladies created by the inattention to what is going on, or not going on, in rural areas.

Congress should reform the subsidy program and enact payment caps that will help direct assistance only to the neediest farmers. Continuing to try to balance the budget at the expense of individuals who are poor and sick will simply exacerbate the problem.

Farming is good economic development for rural communities. And a responsible subsidy program could go a long way in supporting that development. Food stamps put food into children's mouths, where it belongs. There aren't many government programs that are that easy to evaluate.

We can keep our food stamp program intact. It just might mean putting big corporate farmers on a thrifty food plan.

Gerry Roll is executive director of Hazard Perry County Community Ministries in Hazard, Ky.

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