Food prices shift crop subsidies to consumers

Published: Thursday, May 1, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, April 30, 2008 at 11:32 p.m.

WASHINGTON - Most people call it a farm bill. But it's really more of a food bill.

That's even more true this year as negotiators, spurred by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other urban lawmakers, move dollars from crop subsidies to food stamps and other programs for feeding the needy.

Suddenly, higher food prices for consumers are a more urgent political issue as the November election approaches than government payments to farmers who are doing pretty well on their own now.

Around two-thirds of an almost $300 billion, five-year bill moving through Congress is devoted to nutrition programs, most of which goes to food stamps for the poor. That compares with 55 percent six years ago when Congress last set the nation's agriculture priorities.

"We have the potential of seeing an epidemic level of hunger in America if we do not get a farm bill,'' said Maura Daly, a lobbyist for America's Second Harvest - The Nation's Food Bank Network, a domestic hunger-relief organization based in Chicago.

She says food banks are seeing around a 20 percent increase in the number of people turning to them for help.

The extra assistance for food and nutrition programs has brought House members representing urban areas aboard a bill that also features a continuation of generous farm subsidies. President Bush says any subsidies for growers with incomes above $200,000 is too generous.

That urban-rural dynamic has been particularly helpful to farm states this year, as crop prices are higher than ever and farm country is booming, while low-income families struggle with higher grocery bills.

Pelosi and other Democratic leaders let farm-state lawmakers write a bill that includes expanded subsidies for many crops and continued government payments to wealthy farmers but also includes increases for food stamps and other nutrition programs.

Bush, however, is still threatening a veto, complaining Tuesday that the legislation is still bloated with government crop supports.

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