By Stephen Koff
Fewer people would get food stamps -- and ice cream and cheese might cost more.
As disparate as these morsels appear, they are related. First, a reduction in food stamp benefits and a rise in ice cream prices could result if Congress passes a long-awaited bill covering federal food aid and farm supports. The bill is on the agenda over the coming weeks.
Second, Cleveland-based anti-hunger advocates and companies that buy milk by the tankful, including Pierre's Ice Cream Co., hate these separate possibilities and are letting their lawmakers know it. Differences in opinion on food stamp cuts and agriculture policy kept Congress from agreeing on a major farm bill last year, but leaders say they might be able to break through with legislation President Barack Obama could sign by the end of summer -- if they can resolve what to do about food stamps and milk, among other things.
"It is unfathomable to deprive people of the most basic necessity of food when we have the choice not to," Cleveland Foodbank president and CEO Anne Goodman told a Capitol Hill press conference on Thursday. She was speaking specifically about a House proposal to cut food stamp spending by $20.5 billion, or half of the projected $40 billion the entire bill would save over ten years. "The program is working as intended to provide benefits that are timely, targeted and effective."
The dairy proposal, meantime, would help dairy farmers stabilize their prices, and not only with traditional subsidies. It also would measure farmers' milk production levels and tell them to stop producing so much -- they might wind up selling dairy cattle to comply -- to avoid periods of oversupply. The only other commodity with such production levels is sugar, said Jerry Slominski, senior vice president for legislative and economic affairs at the International Dairy Foods Association.
This would help dairy farmers avoid price drops that occur when supply outpaces demand. That might be good for a dairy farmer's bottom line, thus explaining its popularity in dairy states such as Wisconsin. The program would be voluntary, but the dairy users' industry says all but the largest farms would probably participate.
Dairy processors hate it because it could mean the end to market-prodded price drops, which cheese and ice cream makers say they use to keep prices in check. On their side are the International Dairy Foods Association, several conservative think tanks, the Consumer Federation of America and Cleveland-based Pierre's Ice Cream Co, and Miceli Dairy Products.
"We believe this convoluted system is the wrong approach," said Pierre's president Shelley Roth and Miceli CEO Joseph Miceli in a joint May 6 letter to their congresswoman, U.S. Rep. Marcia Fudge. "It would simply add another layer of regulations on small businesses like ours and ultimately increase costs for consumers that are already struggling in a difficult economy."
The nation's agriculture policy covers corn and soybeans and sugar, as might be expected, but it also covers other things related to food. Congress sets the framework with five-year farm bills that authorize government spending, subsidies and recipient eligibility (though costs and savings are projected over ten years because of congressional budgeting rules). When lawmakers cannot agree, as occurred last year when the Senate passed a farm bill but the House did not, they extend current laws for additional months -- in this case, until this September -- and try to regroup in the interim.
That's where things stand. House and Senate agriculture committees this week separately approved blueprints for their respective chambers, with the hope of coming together with a single farm bill before Labor Day. The Senate will start debating the bill and considering amendments as soon as next week, said Sen. Debbie Stabenow, a Michigan Democrat who chairs her chamber's agriculture committee.
But the House and Senate versions that passed in committee this week are starkly different from one another, and nowhere more so than in the food stamp program, formally called the Supplemental Nutrition Allowance Program, or SNAP. SNAP benefits are issued in the form of a debit card, but most people still refer to the program by mentioning food coupons or stamps that recipients would use to pay for their groceries.
SNAP participation grew dramatically during the recent economic recession, and Republicans say the cost is troubling.
Rep. Bob Gibbs, a Republican agriculture committee member from Ohio's Holmes County, said that SNAP funding has increased 260 percent over the last ten years and the program has "become ripe for fraud and abuse."
"You've seen 15 million people added to the food stamp rolls."
"I continue to support the neediest families receiving SNAP support, and under the proposed plan they still will be able to do just that," Gibbs said. "What we are targeting is the abuse of the program and anyone who ignores this fact is hurting the families who need and utilize SNAP for its intended purpose."
Sen. Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican, said the debate is not about cuts. Rather, he said, "It's about a program that has seen an explosion of costs by any measure. You've seen 15 million additional people added to the foods stamp rolls, which is greater than the entire population of the state of Ohio, just in the last four years alone."
Food assistance, he said, now accounts for about 80 percent of spending in the farm bill.
But Democrats say food stamp usage grew as the economy worsened and is coming down as the economy improves. The Senate bill would cut SNAP by $4 billion by tightening some of the enrollment standards and cutting abuse, affecting eligibility for about 500,000 people Stabenow said.
"In my mind, whether it's crop insurance or food assistance, it's the same principle," she said on a conference call with reporters Thursday. "This is about having support there in a disaster, whether it's for a farmer or a family. We've got to make sure that in America, when there is a disaster for either a farmer or a family, that we've got some help there for them."
Fudge, the top Democrat on agriculture committee's nutrition subcommittee, estimated that the cuts called for in the Republican-led House would push 2 million people out of the program, and reduce monthly benefits for 1.8 million others. She said SNAP benefits were set for reduction even without the farm bill cuts as temporary benefits established under the economic recovery act expire.
"If you think this is the right path, then you don't live in the same America where I live," Fudge said.
Goodman said the need for food bank aid is already too much for the charitable food system to satisfy. She estimated the SNAP cuts would lead to 8 billion lost meals over 10 years, and said there's no way food banks "can fill the meal gap created by those cuts."
"Make no mistake, the cuts in the House Ag Committee farm bill will take food from the refrigerators of struggling families, seniors and children," she said.
As for the dairy program, lawmakers and beneficiaries appear to be divided by geographic boundaries. Like Pierrre's and Miceli Dairy, House Speaker John Boehner, a southwest Ohio Republican, opposes the milk production limits. But the House Agriculture Committee is chaired by an Oklahoma Republican, Frank Lucas, and he and the committee's top Democrat, Collin Peterson of Minnesota, trumped Boehner's House leadership when the committee voted 36-10 for the bill..
Gibbs, the Ohio congressman, is a farmer and a past president of the Ohio Farm Bureau. he said the dairy supply provision "is the exact opposite of a free market system."
"Ohio dairy farmers need to be able to grow with the market, and artificially setting limits on the milk they can produce will only keep them more dependent on government subsidies," he said.