Farmers not to blame for food crisis
2.New breed of American emerges in need of food
NOTE: The biotech industry and the Bush Administration are promoting GM crops as a panacea for the food crisis, so how come U.S. livestock and dairy producers are hurting (item 1) and food insecurity in America is exploding (item 2)? The reality, as John Nichols' article notes, is that "solutions" promoted by agribiz conglomerates are designed to maximize corporate profits, not help farmers or feed people!
1.Farmers are not to blame for food crisis
The Capital Times, May 21 2008
When the Senate Foreign Relations Committee met last week to examine the global food crisis, Russ Feingold said something that might have sounded parochial coming from one of the chamber's few genuine internationalists.
"Before I turn to the very serious global food situation, I would like to briefly mention something important to Wisconsin's hard-working farmers," said the Wisconsin Democrat who chairs the Africa Subcommittee. "Many articles and editorials are citing the increased revenues that farmers have recently been receiving for their crops, without mentioning the corresponding rapid increase in their production costs, or the low prices that farmers have received for much of the past decade. I hope we can all agree that America's small and medium-sized farms aren't to blame for the current problems."
As it happens, Feingold was not being parochial.
He was stating a fact.
Most media disregard the wisdom of working farmers in the U.S. and abroad just as completely as they do the concerns of hungry people in Africa and Asia.
If reporters ndsh and most members of Congress -- actually listened to people who know about farm and food issues, they would quickly learn that the only surprising thing about the global food crisis is the notion that anyone finds it surprising.
"So," Jim Goodman, a particularly savvy dairy farmer from Sauk County, said to me the other day, "they finally figured out, after all these years of pushing globalization and genetically modified seeds, that instead of feeding the world we've created a food system that leaves more people hungry. If they'd listened to farmers instead of corporations, they would've known this was going to happen."
Goodman has traveled the world to speak, organize and rally with groups such as La Via Campesina, the global movement of peasant and farm organizations that has been warning for years that "solutions" promoted by agribusiness conglomerates were designed to maximize corporate profits, not help farmers or feed people.
The food shortages, suddenly front-page news, are not new. Hundreds of millions of people were starving and malnourished last year; the only change is that as the scope of the crisis has grown, it has become more difficult to "manage" the hunger that a failed food system accepts.
The global food system was designed by U.S.-based agribusiness conglomerates like Cargill, Monsanto and ADM and forced into place by the U.S. government and its allies at the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization. The system has planted the seeds of disaster by pressuring farmers here and abroad to produce cash crops for export and alternative fuels rather than grow healthy food for local consumption and regional stability.
The only smart short-term response is to throw money at the problem. President Bush's release of emergency aid to the U.N.'s World Food Program was appropriate, but Washington must do more. Rising food prices may not be causing riots in the United States, but food banks here are struggling to meet demand as joblessness grows. Congress should answer Sen. Sherrod Brown's call to allocate $100 million more to domestic food programs.
Beyond humanitarian responses, the cure for what ails the global food system is not more of the same globalization and genetic gimmickry. That way has left 37 nations with food crises while global grain giant Cargill harvests an 86 percent rise in profits and Monsanto reaps record sales from its herbicides and seeds. For years, corporations have promised farmers that problems would be solved by trade deals and technology -- especially GM seeds, which University of Kansas research now suggests reduce food production.
The "market," at least as defined by agribusiness, isn't working. We "have a herd of market traders, speculators and financial bandits who have turned wild and constructed a world of inequality and horror," says Jean Ziegler, the U.N.'s right-to-food advocate. But try telling that to the Bush administration or to World Bank President (and former White House trade rep) Robert Zoellick, who's busy exploiting tragedy to promote trade liberalization.
"If ever there is a time to cut distorting agricultural subsidies and open markets for food imports, it must be now," says Zoellick.
"Wait a second," replies Dani Rodrik, a Harvard political economist who tracks trade policy. "Wouldn't the removal of these distorting policies raise world prices in agriculture even further?"
Yes. World Bank studies confirm that wheat and rice prices will rise if Zoellick gets his way.
Instead of listening to the White House or the World Bank, Congress should recognize -- as a handful of visionary members like Ohio Rep. Marcy Kaptur have -- that trends confirm the wisdom of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy's call for "an urgent rethink of the respective roles of markets and governments." That's far more useful than blaming Midwestern farmers for embracing inflated promises about the potential of ethanol -- although we should re-examine whether aggressive U.S. support for biofuels is not only distorting corn prices but harming livestock and dairy producers, who can barely afford feed and fertilizer.
Instead of telling farmers they're wrong to seek the best prices for their crops, Congress should make sure that farmers can count on good prices for growing the food Americans need. It can do this by providing a strong safety net to survive weather and market disasters and a strategic grain reserve similar to the strategic petroleum reserve to guard against food-price inflation.
Congress should also embrace trade and development policies that help developing countries regulate markets with an eye to feeding the hungry rather than feeding corporate profits. This principle, known as "food sovereignty," sees struggling farmers and hungry people and says, as the Oakland Institute's Anuradha Mittal observes, that it is time to "stop worshiping the golden calf of the so-called free market and embrace, instead, the principle (that) every country and every people have a right to food that is affordable." As Mittal says, "When the market deprives them of this, it is the market that has to give."
John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times
2.New breed of American emerges in need of food
By Richard Wolf
USA TODAY, 18 May 2008
[image caption: The latest government data show that 10.9% of households were "food insecure"]
Philomena Gist understands why it hurts so much to be on food stamps. After all, she's got a master's degree in psychology.
"There's pride in being able to take care of yourself," says the Columbus, Ohio, resident, laid off last year from a mortgage company and living on workers' compensation benefits while recovering from surgery. "I'm not supposed to be in this condition."
Neither are many of the 27.5 million Americans relying on government aid to keep food on their tables amid unemployment and rising prices. Average enrollment in the food stamps program has surpassed the record set in 1994, though the percentage of Americans on food stamps is still lower than records set in 1993-95. The numbers continue to climb.
Gist, 51, is the new face of hunger in the USA. She says she spent most of her adult life working as a mental health counselor before deciding to try real estate. "I'm a professional person," she says.
As economists nationally debate whether the country is in recession and policymakers discuss ways to drive down gas prices, a new category of Americans combats hunger.
Since 2006, soaring food and fuel prices have combined with lost jobs and stagnant wages to boost the number of Americans needing food aid. More than 41% of those on food stamps came from working families in 2006, up from 30% a decade earlier, according to the latest Agriculture Department data.
They are real estate agents and homebuilders hit by the housing slump, seniors on Social Security, parents of students whose free breakfast and lunch programs don't solve the problem of dinner. Increasingly in recent months, they have signed up for food stamps and shown up at food pantries, trying to make ends meet.
"This last year's been the worst," says Gladys Pearson, 76, a retired corrections officer, as she leaves a Bread for the City food pantry in Washington, D.C., a three-day supply of staples in the basket of her walker. She likens it to the 1950s, when her husband would come home with a small can of milk for their newborn daughter because a big one was too expensive.
Officials on the front lines say the need is growing.
”¢ At food stamp offices, employees are "seeing people from various occupations that they have never seen before," says Vic Todd, administrator of Oregon's Office of Self-Sufficiency Programs.
”¢ At food banks, demand is up 15% to 20% over last year. Pantries are serving "folks who get up and go to work every day," says Bill Bolling, founder of the Atlanta Community Food Bank. "That's remarkably different than the profile of who we've served through the years."
”¢ In schools, the school breakfast and lunch programs are serving more than 31 million students, which soon will give way to summer programs that serve just 3 million.
Kindergarteners in Baton Rouge are hoarding part of their lunches to eat later at home, says Mike Manning, president of the Greater Baton Rouge Food Bank.
In Reading, Pa., Peg Bianca, executive director of the Greater Berks Food Bank, sees demand soaring for "weekenders" backpacks of food intended to help students stay nourished until Monday.
Americans 'are really hurting'
"People are hurting," says Kitty Schaller, executive director of the MANNA FoodBank in Asheville, N.C., where one in six people get emergency food assistance. "They are really hurting in a way that I think may well be unprecedented."
Hunger in America isn't new. The latest government data for 2006 show that 10.9% of households were "food insecure," a bureaucratic term meaning they did not have enough food for a healthy lifestyle at some point in the year. In 4% of households, no bureaucratic jargon was needed; someone was going hungry.
Families with enough to eat spent 31% more on food than those who didn't have enough.
The federal food stamps program has grown, shrunk and grown again since its creation in 1964. It was cut by Republicans when they took control of Congress in 1995. It has expanded during the past eight years, fueled by two economic slumps, relaxed rules regarding assets and an outreach campaign to sign up eligible families.
The program is restricted to households with incomes below 130% of the federal poverty level, or $27,560 for a family of four. They cannot have more than $2,000 or, in some cases, $3,000 in assets, not including homes and, in most states, cars. The average benefit is about $3 a day per person. Cost to the government: $38 billion, rising to $40 billion in 2009.
It's the largest weapon in the U.S. government's 15-program food aid arsenal, which now costs about $60 billion, up 76% since 2001. "We do have a strong safety net available to help families in times of economic distress," says Kate Houston, deputy undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services at the Department of Agriculture.
When the Bush administration proposed its 2008 budget in February 2007, it projected that an average of 26.2 million people would get food stamps this year. By the time the fiscal year began in October, however, enrollment already was 27.2 million and growing. For next year, the administration plans for an average of 28 million.
Even so, only 65% of eligible recipients are enrolled. Among working families, only 57% of those eligible for food stamps have signed up.
Gist joined the ranks of recipients after losing her job as a loan officer. She says she was fired the day before she was to be paid her $27,000 share of the closing costs for four loans she negotiated. The mortgage company is now out of business and, in an unfortunate twist, her home is in foreclosure.
She learned she was eligible for food stamps while having her taxes done for free. "It's embarrassing," says Gist, who still hopes to stay in her home despite a scheduled sheriff's sale Friday. "It's humbling."
'Regular Joes' on food stamps
Yet it's not unusual. Kevin McGuire, executive director of Maryland's Family Investment Administration, which runs antipoverty programs, says many new food stamp clients are "regular-Joe working Americans." His state saw enrollment rise 13.8% in the past year, fourth-highest in the USA.
When they get on food stamps, these new recipients find that the program doesn't keep up with prices. The inflation rate for items they're encouraged to buy under the "thrifty food plan" is 5.6% more than the average 4.7% for food. Prices for basic items such as bread and milk pushed food prices up by almost 1% in April alone; bread costs 14.1% more than it did a year ago, milk 13.5% more.
Families with less than $10,000 in pre-tax income spend a larger share of their income on food 17.1% compared with a U.S. average of 12.6%, according to a report last month by the Congressional Research Service. Inflation hits them harder.
"Many of the people who are turning to food pantries today are reporting that their food stamps aren't even lasting two weeks out of every month," says Lisa Hamler-Fugitt, executive director of the Ohio Association of Second Harvest Foodbanks.
The farm bill passed overwhelmingly by Congress last week partially addresses those issues. It would invest $10.4 billion over five years in the food stamps program and food banks. President Bush has vowed to veto the bill because of its subsidies to wealthy farmers, but the House and Senate votes indicate Congress is likely to override him for only the second time.
In the meantime, more Americans will cut corners.
It doesn't "stretch as far as they say it does," says Brenda Tanner, 45, of Asheville, N.C., who raises two teenage daughters on $623 a month in disability payments and $289 a month in food stamps. She buys in bulk and no longer goes out to eat. "Milk is as high as gas," she says. "That's crazy."
Near the Capitol, no more cereal
Even with one in every 11 Americans receiving food stamps, millions who don't qualify also need help. They are joining food stamp recipients at food pantries nationwide, where they receive bags of food intended to last a few days. "Many people are in desperate financial straits who are not eligible for food stamps," says House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who pushed to pass the farm bill.
Second Harvest, the nation's largest network of food banks, says demand is up an average of 15% to 20% from a year ago.
More than 80% of its food banks reported in a survey completed this month that they could not meet demand without trimming operations or reducing the amount of food given out.
Donations are down, particularly from the federal government as well as private companies. Farmers are selling their crops on the open market at record prices, rather than giving them to the government through price-support programs.
To compensate, the Agriculture Department has traded raw commodities for finished goods that can be provided to food banks. Earlier this month, it chipped in with $50 million in frozen pork patties.
Costs are up, particularly for diesel fuel needed to deliver food to pantries by truck. Nearly half of the food banks now buy some of their food or are considering doing so, rather than relying on donations.
"It's really a perfect storm," says Maura Daly, Second Harvest's vice president of government affairs.
At Bread for the City in Washington, less than 2 miles from the White House and the Capitol, food and clothing director Ted Pringle can't buy cereal anymore because of the price of grain, wheat and corn. Fresh fruit jumped by 3.2% nationally in April. "It scares me to buy fruit," Pringle says.
Food banks across the country are on the front lines as demand increases and supply dwindles:
”¢ In Oakland, the number of monthly calls into the Alameda County Community Food Bank has risen 28% from last year. Since July, each month has set a new record.
”¢ In Tyler, Texas, the East Texas Food Bank has stopped buying rice and pinto beans in bulk quantities because they're too expensive. Some of the pantries it serves no longer can drive up to two hours to the central food bank because of a 64% increase in fuel costs.
”¢ In Detroit, executive director Augie Fernandes is seeing more seniors on fixed incomes "who are very proud" come into the Gleaners Community Food Bank of Southeastern Michigan.
”¢ In Ponca City, Okla., the local food pantry is serving more than 500 people a month, a 20% increase from last year. As a result, it's had to cut their monthly allotments from three bags of food to two.
”¢ In Nashville, program services manager Kelli Garrett sees former volunteers and donors arrive as clients at Second Harvest Food Bank of Middle Tennessee. "They feel a certain level of shame having to ask for help," she says.
”¢ In Alaska, 15 remote food pantries have closed because they lacked sufficient government commodities. "At one point, we were down to vegetarian beans," says Susannah Morgan, executive director of the Food Bank of Alaska. Things are better now: They have grape juice, green beans and frozen apricot cups.
”¢ In Orlando, Dave Krepcho of the Food Bank of Central Florida has eight trucks and a tractor-trailer on the road full time, picking up food from grocery stores. He worries about low-income children home from school this summer.
Krepcho, the food bank's executive director, has been in the business 16 years.
"This is the worst that I've ever seen it," he says, "by far."