early school lunch

School girl prays before a lunch provided by the federal government in 1936. In the curent Farm Bill, school lunches received more money.

Photo via pingnews/National Archives

In August 2007 Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin offered a challenge of sorts to people working in rural development. Sen. Harkin said he would help boost the amount of rural development funding in the federal farm bill, if its constituencies could muster support for it.

Despite serious effort on the part of many, there is no increase in rural development funding in the current versions of the farm bill.

Neither the House nor the Senate conference committee offer — made last Thursday and Friday — increases the rural development section of the farm bill one cent above the baseline the Congressional Budget Office set last winter.

There is some good news in this still unresolved debate. Both the House and Senate versions of the bill agree to a $150 million increase in funding for socially disadvantaged farmers and beginning farmers. In addition, there is agreement between the House and Senate that $100 million be applied to the Pigford settlement — the long-running lawsuit where the U.S. Department of Agriculture acknowledged that it had discriminated against African American farmers for many years.

Congressional titans have sparred for weeks, in public and behind closed doors, about priorities and how to pay for them. The fight is even more difficult because Congress hasn’t mustered the political will to shift money away from subsidies for individual crops (wheat, rice, etc.). (See this article in The Politico for an update.) Consequently, there has been a mad scramble to find savings in other parts of the bill and in obscure nooks and crannies of the massive federal budget.

Both the House and Senate passed their own versions of the farm bill and then the two sides began to negotiate their differences in a conference. This past Thursday, the House conferees made their offer, a five-year, $290 billion program with net increases of $5.5 billion funded through manipulation of income from a credit card compliance measure found in the President’s budget.

The Senate responded late Friday with its offer, which features a $10 billion increase in spending. The added Senate difference focuses on agricultural disaster payments and a variety of smaller tax breaks for agricultural special interests.

But what happened to the promises of increased spending on rural development?

The Farm Bill approved by the House of Representatives last July authorized increases in rural development allocations of $150 million. The Senate version passed last December offered an increase of $400 million.

Now, it’s neither. The two sides offer no increase in rural development spending — none at all. It is a long fall from $400 million to zero.

The bottom line is that rural development advocates have not been able to speak with a loud and insistent enough voice to become anything more than mice jumping up and down squeaking, “Me, too, me too,” as the farm bill elephants dance.

The first dancing pachyderm appeared when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi decided that, in order to protect a number of first-term Democratic House members she perceived as being vulnerable to Republican challengers, she would not support significant reform in the agriculture commodity program. Yes, the commodity elephant still dances and twirls and gets first in line to snarf up the party snacks ““ an increase of $1.4 billion in the House version. The Washington Post reported that commodity growers will have automatic payments of $52 billion guaranteed for the next 10 years.

The Senate offer reduces the commodity line item — but increases disaster assistance by $4 billion.

The House and Senate then concluded that if subsidies were fine for the traditional commodity crops, then surely they must be even better for healthy products from fruit and vegetable growers. So these so-called specialty crops are written in on both sides for $1.3 billion in assistance.

The final elephant is a $9.5 billion increase in nutrition programs, such as food stamps and school lunches. These programs were under-funded for some time and they are now being pressured by rising food prices worldwide. Both the House and Senate agreed on this priority. Plenty of hungry and hard-pressed Americans will consider this one of the more benign elephants at the farm bill ball.

Finally, conservation programs have been given a $4 billion increase over five years.

Rural development interests are pinned between these large, popular beasts and the unwillingness of Congress to engage seriously in a reform of the commodity subsidy scheme. And reducing subsidies for commodities is the only real source of funding in an otherwise bleak fiscal landscape.

I suspect that the rural development mouse will never become an elephant in its own right until Congress understands that effective rural development programs benefit both rural communities and the nation’s fiscal bottom line. We’re caught in a cycle: We can’t reduce funding for the programs that treat the symptoms of poverty, such as hunger — which means the country doesn’t have the money to fund development that might alleviate the causes of poverty.

One day, rural development advocates and practitioners, and the communities they love, might be the mouse that roars.

But not this year.

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