This spring I spent a day in Washington, D.C., talking to legislators. I went back to my hotel wondering whether it made any difference.
There are numerous issues lawmakers are expected to resolve. You almost feel sorry for them trying to understand and fix it all. Except they're not fixing very much, and some days it feels as if they're not even trying.
When it comes to the farm bill, both sides of Congress agree that cuts need to be made - but the size of those cuts varies from $18 billion in the Senate to $33.4 billion in the House. Last month the Senate managed to pass a farm bill that seemed to take a little bit from everybody without hurting anyone too much. The House subsequently failed to pass its version, which included a $20 billion cut to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Plan, or SNAP, otherwise known as food stamps. The current farm bill expires Sept. 30, and we can't afford to just keep extending it.
Why can't Congress figure this one out?
The farm bill is actually 20 percent about farming and 80 percent about food-assistance programs. The "farming" portion of the bill consists of crop insurance and commodity programs. We're not talking about free money to farmers. Both Senate and House versions would eliminate "direct payments" and instead help farmers by subsidizing insurance premiums to manage the risks of nature and provide certain subsidies for commodities to avoid volatile markets. The ultimate benefactor is the consumer, who can rely on stable food prices at the grocery store.
The farm bill also provides funding for important research in food safety, nutrition, conservation, organic and sustainable farming, pesticides and wildlife programs.
I have a confession: I'm a liberal, and I think government has a duty to provide programs that support the people. Is the farm bill perfect? No. It has its abusers, and in "good" farm years it may look like the government is helping farmers too much. But the farming and food industry is one that touches all American households and should demand top priority from legislators.
I have another confession: I grew up on food stamps. My dad was a welder and my mom worked as a seasonal employee for the federal government. It was the mid-1980s and they had four kids to feed. I remember being young and going grocery shopping with my mom after we got our food stamps for the month. We stocked up on frozen meats and vegetables, boxes of starchy food for the pantry, and cans of everything - but it also meant we could afford some fresh bread and fruit. I can assure you this was not a taken-for-granted handout - it was a safety net that we were lucky to have, because we live in a great country.
We "graduated" from the food stamp program, and I'm lucky enough to be able to go grocery shopping now and not worry about the price of milk. But I continue to worry about politics and the agriculture industry. The fact is we need to pass a new farm bill that better addresses risk management without a huge impact to the food stamp program.