NPR logo Farm Bill Delay Could Mean People Go Hungry


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Congress was supposed to have a new farm bill by now. Instead it has a one-week extension of the current law while House and Senate negotiators try to work out their differences. Much has been made of the farm bill's crop subsidies, which critics say are unjustified at this time of record farm prices.

But a large portion of the bill goes to fund food stamps and related nutrition programs. Advocates say poor people are in danger of going hungry while Congress dawdles. NPR's Brian Naylor has the story.

BRIAN NAYLOR: It's become a common sight in communities around the nation during this economic downturn - the depleted shelves of food pantries where advocates say the supply of donated food is unable to keep up with demand. Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown has seen it firsthand in Hawking County in rural southeast Ohio.

Senator SHERROD BROWN (Democrat, Ohio): A small county where people have lined up - they'll show up at 3:30 in the morning - the food pantry at the church opens at 8:00 a.m. But 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.

NAYLOR: Brown is a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee. The House and Senate have both passed farm bills that would increase money for food pantries and for food stamps. He said the legislation will help.

Sen. BROWN: This farm bill will absolutely make a difference in providing a good bit more money and encouragement to these food banks, these food pantries around the country.

NAYLOR: Congress projects a record 28 million monthly recipients of food stamps in the coming fiscal year. Lawmakers have tentatively agreed on a ten-year $10 billion increase in nutrition funding over current levels. With food prices rapidly rising, the Reverend David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World, says the money can't come soon enough.

Mr. DAVID BECKMANN (Reverend, President, Bread for the World): Strengthening the food stamp program is urgently important, especially now with 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.

NAYLOR: The problem is House and Senate negotiators are 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 lawmakers have vowed this one-week extension of the current program will be the last.

Vicki Escarra, President of America's Second Harvest, a national network of food banks, says lawmakers need to get it done.

Ms. VICKI ESCARRA (President, America's Second Harvest): It's extraordinarily frustrating. We've been working with Congress on the farm bill for over a year. And we have had tremendous support from both Republicans and Democrats but it is time for them to come together and they need to really have courage and step up and get this bill passed.

NAYLOR: Among the tax breaks lawmakers have been debating is one involving race horses that would benefit states with large thoroughbred racing industries, including Kentucky, home of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. Reuben Gist is with the Capital Area Food Bank in Washington.

Mr. REUBEN GIST (Capital Area Food Bank): How that get into a farm bill or into a subsidy program that originally was designed to help keep farmers from going out of business? Do thoroughbred raisers need a subsidy or do families need help in feeding their children?

NAYLOR: If Congress is unable to settle its differences on the farm bill, lawmakers may attempt to approve a one-year extension of the current law. It's unclear whether that would include the extra money for nutrition programs. Democrats, including Senator Brown, are discussing more food stamp funding in a second stimulus bill, but that measure's fate is far from certain.

Brian Naylor, NPR News, the Capitol.

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