Congress was supposed to have reached agreement on a new farm bill by now, and much more than crop subsidies is riding on the legislation: It also authorizes food stamps and related nutrition programs.
Now, House and Senate negotiators are trying to hammer out their differences during a one-week extension of the current law. Advocates say that poor people are in danger of going hungry as Congress dawdles.
Across the country, depleted shelves are a common sight at food pantries, where advocates say the supply of donated items hasn't kept pace with demand during the recent economic downturn.
Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) has seen it firsthand in Hocking County in the rural southeast part of the state.
"They'll show up at 3:30 in the morning. The food pantry at the church opens at 8 a.m.," Brown says. "By 12:30, literally 2,000 people come in for food once a month and they get food for about three weeks. It doesn't get them through the month."
Brown, a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, says both the House and Senate version of the farm bill would increase money for food pantries and for food stamps.
Congress estimates that a record 28 million people will receive monthly food stamps during the coming fiscal year. Lawmakers have agreed tentatively on a 10-year, $10-billion increase in nutrition funding over current levels.
As food prices rise, the money can't come soon enough, says the Rev. David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World.
"Strengthening the food stamp program is urgently important, especially now that low-income people are facing higher food prices, higher fuel prices, higher unemployment. Some of them have problems with credit and mortgages, so we've got a crisis in this country," Beckmann says.
But House and Senate negotiators remain at odds over other provisions in the farm bill, including some tax cuts the Senate wants to attach to the measure. The Bush administration and some legislators have vowed that the one-week extension of the current program will be the last granted.
Vicki Escarra, president of America's Second Harvest, a national network of food banks, says lawmakers need to get a bill done.
"It's extraordinarily frustrating," Escarra says. "We've been working with the Congress on the farm bill for over a year, and we've had tremendous support from both Republicans and Democrats, but it is time for them to come together. They need to really have courage and step up and get this bill passed."
Among the tax breaks lawmakers have been debating is one involving racehorses that would benefit states with large thoroughbred-racing industries, including Kentucky, home of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Ruben Gist, with the Capitol Area Food Bank in Washington, D.C., wonders about the tax break's relevance.
"How does that fit into a farm bill or to a subsidy program that originally was designed to help keep farmers from going out of business?" Gist says. "Do thoroughbred racers need a subsidy, or do families need help in feeding their children?"
If Congress is unable to settle its differences on the farm bill, lawmakers may attempt to extend the current law for a year. It is unclear whether that would include the extra money for nutrition programs. Democrats such as Brown are discussing additional food stamp funding in a second stimulus bill, but the fate of that measure is far from certain.