On Monday, Obama announced his budget for 2012. I don’t have a deep understanding of our political system (does anybody really?) but Obama’s budget was of particular interest to the food/agriculture world.
Among other cuts, Obama proposed eliminating a chunk of agricultural subsidies. An article in yesterday’s LA Times has a good summation of the issues with cutting (or not cutting) these subsidies, including a brief mention of the $147 million the U.S. sends to Brazil to compensate for our (deemed-illegal by the WTO) cotton subsidies. (I included a link to the more thorough NPR story on this issue with Brazil, it’s incredibly interesting.) Author P.J. Huffstutter sums-up the subsidy issue nicely with this excerpt:
“It’s a hot-button issue that draws uncomfortable political battle lines: Should lawmakers deeply cut farm subsidy programs that help ensure a steady domestic supply of food, but that critics say are rife with waste and largely benefit large agribusiness corporations?
Or should they cut back food assistance for the poor — cuts that could also hurt some small farmers and struggling segments of the agricultural community?“
I’m in the midst of what feels like the most terrible two weeks of my semester: researching, writing, crying about researching and writing… but then there was this enormous sunburst of light on my food news radar last Thursday:
This is HUGE news. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act is a year overdue. The child nutrition reauthorization bill (the bill’s more generic name) is supposed to be renewed by Congress every five years, but Congress chose to postpone renewal last fall. After over a year of advocating on the part of sustainable food organizations and most notably Michelle Obama, the bill has finally passed.
It is an imperfect bill for sure, mainly because it takes HALF of its increased funding from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), previously known as food stamps. Democrats and food advocates alike winced at this provision, but felt it necessary to compromise or else risk not passing the bill at all.
Here are some of the highlights of the bill:
- It will raise the federal reimbursement by six cents per meal. This doesn’t sound like much, but it is the first non-inflation increase since 1973.
- It provides $50 million in funding for Farm-to-School programs. I’m definitely most excited over this part of the bill. Check out some more info on farm to school programs at www.farmtoschool.org.
- It outlines better nutrition standards that cover all of the food sold in the cafeteria, rather than just the food prepared at the school. The New York Times (via Center for Research in the Public Interest) featured a sample before-and-after menu.
- It allows easier access for low-income students to register for the free and reduced lunch program, something that is shockingly relevant according to new data from the USDA, as reported by the Los Angeles Times, that 15 percent of all households in the U.S. didn’t have enough money to feed themselves at some point in 2009. On top of that, 6.8 million of these households had to skip meals regularly; that includes at least one million children who didn’t have access to consistent meals. For some children, these free or reduced lunches may be the only meal they have throughout the day.
The bill’s passage seems especially pressing considering the Republicans will take over the House in January. Check out who voted yay and nay on the bill, according to the New York Times story:
On the final roll call, 247 Democrats and 17 Republicans voted for the bill. Four Democrats and 153 Republicans voted no.
This bill is definitely something to be grateful for, especially after hearing that the Food Safety Modernization Act will likely die during this Congressional session due to a silly bureaucratic typo in the Senate’s version of the bill.
For more coverage, check out the Slow Food USA blog post on the bill.
The Food Safety Modernization Act was passed in the Senate this morning with a vote of 73 to 25. The bill includes an amendment that intends to safeguard small producers (those with less than $500,000 in yearly sales) who sell directly or locally from being overburdened with fees and paperwork. The New York Times has a fair reading of the bill’s implications and limitations:
“The bill is intended to keep unsafe foods from reaching markets and restaurants, where they can make people sick — a change from the current practice, which mainly involves cracking down after outbreaks occur. Both versions of the bill would grant the F.D.A. new powers to recall tainted foods, increase inspections, demand accountability from food companies and oversee farming. [...] The legislation greatly increases the number of inspections of food processing plants that the F.D.A. must conduct, with an emphasis on foods that are considered most high risk — although figuring out which those are is an uncertain science. Until recently, peanut butter would not have made the list.”
The bill also increases juridiction over imported food:
“The bill gives the agency more control over food imports, including increased inspection of foreign processing plants and the ability to set standards for how fruits and vegetables are grown abroad.”
However, the bill hass limitations:
“Neither would consolidate overlapping functions at the Department of Agriculture and nearly a dozen other federal agencies that oversee various aspects of food safety, leaving coordination among the agencies a continuing challenge.”
The bill still needs to make it to the President’s desk, but this is nonetheless a ginormous victory for food safety!
Maybe you believe there is a food safety crisis, maybe you don’t. Maybe you believe that big government is trying to take away your McDonalds or your children’s cookies. Maybe you believe that the government is riddled with big-ag conflicts of interest. Regardless of what you believe, 5,000 people die every year from food-related illness, according to the Center for Disease Control, and that number is hard to dismiss. Currently on the floor of the Senate is a bill that hopes to make our food system more safe by increasing the jurisdiction of the FDA. A final vote on the bill has been pushed back, yet again, until 9AM tomorrow morning. In the meantime, I’ve included some links below to helpful articles and op-eds on the bill.
- Helena Bottemiller for Food Safety News has a chronology of the steps to approve the bill as well as a quick summary of the bill’s history.
- In Sunday’s New York Times, Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser collaborated in an opinion piece on the necessity of S .510.
- Tom Philpott’s post on Grist discusses why the Food Safety Modernization Act is necessary, but only treats the symptoms of a larger systemic failure.
- And for the other side of the debate, Senator Tom Coburn (the bill’s loudest opponent) wrote an opinion piece in USA Today calling for less legislation and more free market.
- On a more abstract level, Judith Warner wrote a piece for the New York Times Sunday Magazine on why legislation isn’t the best answer to the question of American’s eating habits.
The presidential turkey pardon never ceases to humor me. This year’s turkeys, Apple and Cider, were former residents of Foster Farms in California. After the pardon, they’ll live out the rest of their lives at the historic Mount Vernon estate and gardens just outside of Washington D.C. Obama’s best turkey pardon quote:
“It feels pretty good to stop at least one shellacking this November.“