When you say the words “Farm Bill” to most dietitians, you may get the deer-caught-in-headlights look. Why should dietitians concern themselves with The Farm Bill of 2007? There are many reasons, most notably that this bill directs food production and supplies necessary for us to promote nutrition and health.
Many consumers believe they eat directly what American farmers grow, but that is not necessarily true. Farmers grow food consumed in the United States, but they also export food, grow feed for animals, and grow crops used in biofuels. Actually, only a small percentage of many mainstay crops go directly to American food consumption. The majority of calories consumed in the U.S. diet may still come from crops grown and processed in the United States, but an increasing percentage of certain foods are imported. Consumer demand is a driving force of the globalization of our diet, and trends continue to indicate the rise in consumption of imported foods—grapes, fresh tomatoes, olives, and fish—in the United States.1
Nutrition experts think there is a definite opportunity for dietitians to be in involved in food policy through the Farm Bill. “The Farm Bill is very important legislation for dietitians to become involved with through advocacy,” says Susan Roberts, JD, MS, RD, director of the Food & Society Policy Fellows Program at the Thomas Jefferson Agricultural Institute. “The Farm Bill is what influences the food supply that we all eat from every day. Because of this importance, the Farm Bill should have as one of its key purposes the goal to advance the health and well-being of Americans. As food and nutrition experts, we understand what is needed to accomplish this and should be at the table during these important discussions and decisions about our food supply.”
The Farm Bill is a large, complex part of the budget authorized by Congress and signed by the President. It affects not only Americans, but others in the world, based on trade agreements.
The Farm Bill is scheduled for reauthorization this year and will likely shape our diets in the years ahead. The last Farm Bill, passed in 2002, is slated to end September 30. It included price supports for certain crops that made it profitable to grow them and the funding of major nutrition programs, including food stamps, farm-to-school procurement guidance, and the seniors’ farmers’ market program. Coalitions and relationships are being formed now to make sure their voices are heard. It is not too early for dietitians to get involved and learn how this bill can affect their livelihood.
Some people, including some farmers, believe the current bill should simply be extended; others want to examine how the money is spent and what crops are profitable to grow, including the nonfood biofuels made from corn and soybeans. Still others want to discuss how the Farm Bill influences our diet through the crops given support. The discussion started several years ago with a study conducted by the Economic Research Service of the USDA evaluating the Food Guide Pyramid and food supply (see Figure 2). This study found that our food supply exceeded the Food Guide Pyramid recommendations in some categories and did not meet the recommendations in others. Most notably, the fruit and dairy supplies were significantly below what the pyramid recommends, and levels for the vegetable supply that were close to meeting the recommendations came from frozen potatoes products.2
A recent report that supported this information concluded that for Americans to meet the 2005 Dietary Guidelines, farmers would need to change the current mixture of production. Farmers would need to grow more fruits and vegetables and produce more dairy to meet what Americans are encouraged to consume for a healthy diet.3
Farm Policy in the United States: Now and Then
Farm policies have existed since our country’s beginning. The first farm policies addressed land distribution, then moved to education and research, followed by income support. It was not until the 1920s that farm bills began to include farm income support. Agricultural policy continued to be dominated by farm income support, price supports, and supply management until 1996.4 That year, agricultural policy broadened to include agricultural trade issues, food safety, food assistance, conservation and environmental concerns, and the more traditional focus on commodities.
Farming has changed over time. America has many less farmers than in the past—the number of farms peaked in 1935 at 6.8 million. In 2002, there were only one third as many farms.5 One reason was because increased productivity led to a decrease in farm laborers. In addition, farm policy encouraging globalization resulted in a loss of farm income. The makeup of farmers’ income has also changed. Since 1999, the majority of income for farmers is not from farming but outside jobs.6
What Is a Commodity?
Commodities are regulated under the commodity title of the U.S. Farm Bill. Most commodities were established in the 1930s and reflected what was important for trade at the time. It is difficult to eliminate a commodity that farmers have come to depend on, so the list includes items that may be surprising to nonfarmers, such as mohair and sorghum.
To help farmers get a fair price with these commodities, the options are to control the supply or pay the difference. Farm policy has moved away from supply control to paying the difference, funded by our taxes through congressional appropriations.
The Beginning of Food Stamps
During the Great Depression, many Americans went hungry because they had little or no money for food. Consequently, farmers had an overabundance of food produced for a market that could not afford it. To answer this problem, the U.S. government introduced the first supplemental food program. This program gave recipients colored stamps to help the economy and feed the hungry. The orange stamps could be used to purchase any food while the blue stamps were only for foods labeled “surplus” by the government. The program ended in 1943, and it was not until 1961 that President Kennedy initiated the food stamp pilot program.7 The Johnson administration’s War on Poverty focus included ensuring Americans had access to food, subsequently changing food stamps from a pilot to a mandated program, meaning all eligible persons could receive assistance. This new program not only helped improve nutritional intake but also helped strengthen the agricultural economy.
Unsure how to fully design the program for public acceptance, the proposed House of Representatives’ version would have prohibited the purchase of soft drinks (which is being discussed again) and what some viewed as luxury foods, which at the time included frozen foods. The final version dictated that food stamps be used on any foods except alcoholic beverages, imported foods, cleaning supplies, and pet foods, which is still true today.
In 1973, the Farm Bill and the Food Stamp Program were combined into one bill. To help reduce domestic hunger, on the rise in the late 1980s, changes were then introduced into the Food Stamp Program. These changes included the elimination of sales tax on food stamp purchases, an increase to the resource limit for most households to $2,000, eligibility for the homeless, and expanded nutrition education for participants. It was during this time that Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) systems were introduced as a means to purchase food. EBT cards are similar to ATM cards—easy to use, and because they have the appearance of an ATM card, do not stigmatize the recipient.7
Based on eligibility changes, a healthy economy, and application reform, the Food Stamp Program participation rate was 17 million in 2001. This rose in 2005 to a monthly average of more than 25 million.8 It is important to note that while there has been an increase in participation numbers, there has been a decrease in the percentage of those eligible to use the program.
The Farm Bill Today
What is in the current Farm Bill? The 2002 Farm Bill, completed during President Bush’s first administration and known as the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act, has 10 sections outlining how funds are used.
One question is: Do price supports help farmers and the American diet? In 2004, approximately 40% of all farms received government payments, and the largest 7.5% of farms, in terms of gross receipts, received 56% of all government payments. In 2005, the commodity program was more than $20 billion.9
Corn, the highest supported crop, is used not only as an ingredient but also for animal feed and biofuels. One product processed from corn is high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), found in sweetened beverages. The average consumption of HFCS increased more than 4,000% from 1970 to 2000, replacing sugar.1
The availability of soybeans has also influenced our diet. Consumption of added fats and oils by the U.S. population, at 59 grams per day, is among the highest in the world. Partially hydrogenated soybean oil, a crop that receives price support, is a trans fat, which is known to increase the risk for coronary heart disease (CHD). Partially hydrogenated soybean oil is found in various baked goods, including cereals, cookies, crackers, and breads. It is also found in items such as salad dressing, margarine, and peanut butter.
Removing trans fats from our food could prevent tens of thousands of heart attacks and cardiac deaths each year in the United States, according to researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health in a review article published in 2006 in The New England Journal of Medicine. The authors linked evidence that trans fat consumption led to increased risk of CHD, sudden cardiac death, and diabetes.10
“The effect and magnitude of adverse health effects of trans fatty acids are in fact far stronger on average than those of food contaminants or pesticide residues, which have in some cases received considerable attention,” the authors write. “Complete or near-complete avoidance of industrially produced trans fats … may be necessary to avoid adverse health effects and would be prudent to minimize risks.”11
To meet a healthier fat intake, our intake would need to decrease by 36%. This reduction would affect soybean production, with less farmland needed to produce soybeans for partially hydrogenated soybean oil.12 If this would happen, the farmland could be used for other crops.
Fruits and vegetables do not receive direct price support and may be one reason why our current production does not meet the dietary recommendations. The government supports fruits and vegetables by being the largest purchaser through various government programs, including school lunch programs, Head Start, Child and Adult Care Food Program, Older Americans Act Nutrition Programs, the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program in schools, the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) and Senior Farmers Market programs, and, if approved, the expansion of the WIC program to include fresh fruits and vegetables.
While not yet appropriated, the Access to Local Foods and School Gardens legislation would support purchases by schools from local farmers. Given that the government is one of the largest purchasers of fruits and vegetables and the need to develop innovative methods for supporting farmers to grow more of these crops, dietitians should be aware of programs in the Farm Bill that support production.
In the current Farm Bill, unless farmers receiving federal funds have previously grown fruits and vegetables, they are not permitted to convert to these crops. This limits production, keeps prices of fruits and vegetables higher, and means there is not enough to meet the Dietary Guidelines. But this is changing. Imported fruits and vegetables are increasing at a rapid rate. This year, for example, more garlic imported from China will be sold in the United States than California produces. Farmers of fruits and vegetables (also known as specialty crops) are asking for help, not in direct support but for more money for marketing, research, and conservation.
In addition to commodity subsidies in the Farm Bill are nutrition programs designed to help reduce hunger and improve nutritional status for Americans. The largest of these programs is the Food Stamp Program.
Originally named for the stamps recipients were given, the name is now outdated, since EBT cards have replaced the stamps. Some antihunger advocates would like to see the name changed to food support or a term more descriptive of today’s program.
What Might a Typical Food Stamp Recipient Be Like?
Consider a family of four: a husband, wife, and two children. The wife recently lost her job. The husband works at a lower paying job and they can no longer make ends meet. Their adjusted annual income is $23,000. This family qualifies for food stamps because their car is worth less than $2,000 and they have no savings. More than likely, they will be on food stamps for less than one year.
More than 79% of participants are households with children. To be eligible for food stamps, households must have gross incomes below 130% of the poverty line ($26,000 for a family of four), and their resources, including savings, cash, and other assets, cannot exceed $2,000.13 Persons receiving food stamps are expected to work or be in work training and job search programs.14
Another issue concerning the 2007 Farm Bill is whether food stamp funding should require that food purchases made with food stamps match the dietary guidelines. Similar to the WIC program, where food allowable for purchase is clearly defined, proponents of this propose a similar structure for food stamps.
The Chicago Council on Global Affairs released a report by its Agriculture Task Force that addresses this concern. “U.S. taxpayers deserve a bigger public health return on their $51 billion-a-year investment in feeding programs,” says Catherine Bertini, task force cochair and former undersecretary responsible for the USDA’s feeding programs. “Providing healthy foods is the first step toward better health for all Americans.”15 Opponents of this approach believe it is punitive to food stamp recipients. Both sides, however, agree that nutrition education is an important piece of the program.
Who will be partners at the Farm Bill dance is not quite set. The outcome of the midterm elections could change the direction of the “don’t fix it” thinking and make some changes to match agricultural policy with nutrition policy. Economics of healthcare costs may also be a factor. Stay tuned; it has the makings of a very interesting ride.
— Mary Pat Raimondi, MS, RD, is a nutrition marketing consultant, and Fern Gale Estrow, MS, RD, CDN, is a nutrition and policy consultant.
1. http://www.census.gov. Accessed December 5, 2006.
2. Putnam J, Allshouse J, Kantor L. U.S per capita food supply trends: More calories, refined carbohydrates and fats. Food Review. 25(3). Economic Research Service, USDA. Available here. Accessed December 5, 2006.
3. Buzby J, Wells H, Vocke G. Possible Implications for U.S, Agriculture From Adoption of Select Dietary Guidelines Economic Research Report Number 31. Economic Research Service, USDA. Available here. Accessed December 5, 2006.
4. U.S. Farm Policy: The First 200 Years. Agriculture Outlook March 2000. Economic Research Service USDA. Available here. Accessed December 5, 2006.
5. U.S. Farms: Numbers, Size, and Ownership 31. Economic Research Service, USDA. Available here. Accessed December 5, 2006.
6. Does Off-Farm Work Hinder “Smart” Farming? Agricultural Outlook/September 2002. Research & Technology. Economic Research Service, USDA. Available here. Accessed December 5, 2006.
7. A Short History of the Food Stamp Program. USDA Food and Nutrition Service. Available here. Accessed December 5, 2006.
8. “Food Stamp Program Participation and Costs,” Data as of October 24, 2006 at USDA Food and Nutrition Service. Available here. Accessed December 5, 2006.
9. Government Payments and the Farm Sector: Who Benefits and How Much? Economic Research Service, USDA. Available at here. Accessed December 5, 2006.
10. Mozaffarian D, Katan MB, Ascherio A, et al. Trans fatty acids and cardiovascular disease. N Engl J Med. 2006;354(15):1601-1613.
11. Harvard School of Public Health. HSPH Researchers Make Case for Removing Trans Fats from Industrial Food Supply. April 19, 2006. Available here. Accessed December 5, 2006.
12. Food Consumption: Effects of Food Consumption Choices on Agriculture Economic Research Service, USDA. Available at here. Accessed December 5, 2006.
13. 2006 Federal Poverty Guidelines. Federal Register. 2006;71(15):3848-3849.
14. The Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) Federal Food Program, Food Stamp Program. Food Stamp Program Frequently Asked Questions. Available here. Accessed December 5, 2006.
15. “Modernizing America’s Farm and Food Policy: Vision for a New Direction,” Task Force on U.S. Agriculture Policy, September 27, 2006, Global Agriculture 2006. The Chicago Council on Global Affairs. Available here. Accessed December 5, 2006.