ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
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A farmer, a baker and an economist were among the people testifying before a Congressional committee today. The topic: the high cost of food. Democratic Senator Charles Schumer of New York summed up the issue this way.
Senator CHARLES SCHUMER (Democrat, New York): When you walk down the street, you hear people complaining about food prices almost as much as gas prices.
SIEGEL: The Joint Economic Committee chaired by Senator Schumer heard from a panel of witnesses about why food prices are so high and what can be done about them.
No one provided easy answers, as NPR's Brian Naylor reports.
BRIAN NAYLOR: Democratic Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney of New York says American consumers are facing a painful one-two punch.
Representative CAROLYN MALONEY (Democrat, New York): In some areas of the country, people are paying $4 for both a gallon of milk and a gallon of gas. Families are forced to cut back on meats and fresh vegetables for lower cost items such as pasta and canned foods. Some are calling this the recession diet.
NAYLOR: The cost of food may pinch middle-class families into a recession diet. But George Braley of America's Second Harvest, a network of food banks, told lawmakers that for poor people and the food pantries they rely on, it's truly a crisis.
Mr. GEORGE BRALEY (America's Second Harvest): Our food banks are dealing with an increase in the number of people who need food because of the declining economy and rapidly rising food prices that are seriously undermining our ability to serve the growing need. Quite simply, Mr. Chairman, our network is overwhelmed.
NAYLOR: And small businesses are feeling the effects too. Richard Reinwald of Reinwald's Bakery on Long Island says the cost of flour and rye is rising and it's costing him dough.
Mr. RICHARD REINWALD (Owner, Reinwald's Bakery): For us, the result of these increases has been a drop in volume of about 5 to 7 percent. While this may not sound like much, it is the difference between profit and loss, perhaps staying in business or closing the door.
NAYLOR: There are any number of reasons for the spike in food prices, and there was a lot of finger pointing today. Republican Senator John Sununu of New Hampshire says it's all the corn that's now being used to make ethanol, thanks to policies and tax breaks approved by Congress.
Senator JOHN SUNUNU (Republican, New Hampshire): If we are diverting 25 percent of our corn production to create fuel instead of using it for food, that has a very real impact on prices here at home and around the world.
NAYLOR: But farmers say little of the corn that's used for food or animal feed is being diverted. Tom Buis, president of the National Farmers Union, says most farmers are feeling the pinch too.
Mr. TOM BUIS (National Farmers Union): Fertilizer has gone through the roof. Equipment has gone through the roof. Fuel has gone through the roof. Seed - everything they use for inputs has had this big price run-up.
NAYLOR: And don't forget the weather. According to USDA economist Joseph Glauber, it's been a major factor in the spike in wheat prices.
Dr. JOSEPH GLAUBER (United States Department of Agriculture): We've had devastating drought in Australia. Australia is a major wheat producer. We also had a very poor crop in Canada.
NAYLOR: So Glauber says better weather should help lower wheat prices and that corn prices are likely to stabilize in the near future.
In the meantime, advocates for the poor want Congress to approve a new farm bill that would increase spending on food stamps and related nutrition programs by some $10 billion. But that bill has been hung up because the White House objects to the billions in subsidies it would give to well-off farmers even at a time of record crop prices.
The food crisis is not limited to these shores, and the president asked Congress today to provide some $770 million in global food assistance.
Brian Naylor, NPR News, the Capitol.