Vilsack frames direct payment cuts as hungry children or high-end farmers | TSLN.com

Vilsack frames direct payment cuts as hungry children or high-end farmers

Jerry Hagstrom

WASHINGTON (DTN) – A key national nutrition advocate says that anti-hunger leaders will vary in their reactions to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack’s appeal that they back the Obama administration’s plan to end direct payments to farmers with gross sales of more than $500,000 to pay for an increase in child nutrition programs.

Last week President Barack Obama said in a speech to Congress that the administration wants to end subsidies to large farmers. His budget proposed a number of USDA cuts, but the most controversial was to eliminate direct payments to farmers with more than $500,000 in gross sales, as well as put a $250,000 hard cap on all farm-program payments. The budget documents said that cutting the direct payments would save about $1.25 billion per year. The administration budget also proposed spending an additional $1 billion per year on child nutrition.

After a speech to the National Anti-Hunger Conference Monday, Vilsack said, “We will do our best to frame this discussion in that way, so that people understand: 30 million children, 90,000 farmers,” according to a Reuters report.

“It is a tough choice, but it’s a choice that folks are going to have to make,” he said.

Vilsack also urged the more than 500 anti-hunger advocates from around the country to support the administration’s proposal. “There are vested interest groups that want to protect those (direct farm) payments,” Vilsack said in the speech. “They are very vested. One fellow suggested that this was a declaration of war,” Vilsack said, according to the Reuters report.

Vilsack’s comments appear aimed to split a traditional coalition between hunger organizations and large farm groups that have worked successfully together over the past several farm bills to protect commodity programs while boosting spending on nutrition programs as well.

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Jim Weill, president of the Food Research and Action Center, one of the conference sponsors, said in an interview he thinks some anti-hunger groups will support farm-program cuts while others won’t. Conference attendees “strongly support” President Obama’s proposal to spend $1 billion more per year on child nutrition programs, but he added, “Where that money comes from is an incredibly complicated issue.”

Weill noted that in the House of Representatives the direct payments are under the jurisdiction of the House Agriculture Committee while child nutrition is under the Education and Labor Committee. That means money saved from farm subsidies could not be automatically transferred to child nutrition programs.

Weill added that perhaps farm groups will come up with an alternative way of cutting farm programs to pay for child nutrition. He also suggested that taxes might be raised to pay for the child nutrition programs.

Weill’s comments were typical of the position that the Food Research and Action Center took during the farm-bill debate. While some anti-hunger advocates such as Bread for the World pushed the position that farm programs should be cut to pay for nutrition programs, FRAC has always said that it is up to Congress to decide the source of funds for nutrition programs. Instead of attacking farm programs, FRAC formed alliances with farm groups to pass the entire farm bill. The result was a $10 billion increase in nutrition programs over 10 years. Congress paid for the increase by allocating money from the collection of inspection fees on imports to the food stamp program.

This year, FRAC also worked to get $20 billion in the economic stimulus package to increase food-stamp benefits during the recession. The stimulus package was passed on an emergency basis, which meant that no offset was necessary to pay for it.

Weill and his colleagues have made it clear that they believe that poor children need more access to food, particularly as the economy worsens. On Sunday, FRAC issued an extensive proposal asking for an increase of approximately $4 billion per year or $20 billion over five years in a broad range of child-nutrition programs.

While pushing for increases in nutrition spending, the White House also has tried to dampen expectations. But Jared Bernstein, an economist who works for Vice President Joe Biden, told anti-hunger advocates that other administration efforts to get the economy back on track will also make it easier for lower-income people to get proper food.

“Think of the economy as someone who has eaten a lot of junk food for the past eight years,” Bernstein said, adding that there is “a lot of sclerosis from all this bad debt.” But he added that advocates have to keep in mind that there will be limits to the administration’s spending amidst the campaign to cut the debt in half. Biden “has an inner blue dog” as he considers spending proposals, Bernstein said.

Martha Coven, a special assistant to President Obama who is in charge of nutrition programs, said the administration will maintain Obama’s campaign pledge to end childhood hunger by 2015, but added, “This is going to be a very difficult period in the short run.”

Derek Miller, a nutrition aide to Senate Agriculture Chairman Tom Harkin, said he was “thrilled” that President Obama had included $1 billion for child nutrition in the budget, but added that the President’s budget only guides Congress and said the biggest challenge facing nutrition is whether Congress budgets more money for child nutrition.

“Otherwise we’ll just be rearranging the deck chairs,” Miller said.

Denise Forte, an aide to House Education and Labor Chairman George Miller, noted that her committee must deal with other major bills this year as well as child nutrition.

Jerry Hagstrom can be reached at jerry.hagstrom@dtn.com

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