1 piece of chocolate cake
1 ice cream cone
1 slice of Swiss cheese
1 slice of salami
1 piece of cherry pie
1 slice of watermelon
from The Very Hungry Caterpillar
written and illustrated by Eric Carle
World Publishing Company, 1969
(accessed on YouTube 3/27/23, read by the author)
It is fair to say that even though I’ve read about hunger in the United States and elsewhere, even though I educated myself (a little) about food deserts in my own community and try to spread the word about food waste, I’ve never experienced hunger. I am grateful, extremely grateful for that. Even though our quote today is from a classic, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, it is fair to say that the caterpillar was not really hungry either.
People have been hungry in the United States since our beginning as a colonial possession of Great Britain. Whether hard-scrabble Puritans learning to be farmers, or hearty pioneers looking to eke out a living on the prairie while learning about the Native population whose land the pioneers believed was their own, or city-dwellers displaced by gentrification and freeways, hunger has been part of the American landscape.
Beginning in the 1930s, hundreds of thousands of real Americans, like John Steinbeck’s fictional Joad family in The Grapes of Wrath, moved west to look for work. While their poor farming practices over the course of years depleted the soil, a years-long severe drought exacerbated the problem and resulted in the Dust Bowl. Acres and acres of farmland were devastated. Families were in financial ruin.
In an attempt to give people, especially farmers, a leg up during the Great Depression (1929-1939) and the Dust Bowl (~1930-1940) Congress passed the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933 as part of the New Deal.
It included crop insurance, training to support sustainable farming practices, and money for people who needed to buy healthy food for their families.
The farm bill, as it is usually referred to, is tweaked and renewed every five or so years. Price controls that allowed farmers to earn a living wage were a major part of the first farm bill. In 1938, the Soil Conservation Act was renewed. According to History of the United States Farm Bill “[f]armers were compensated for planting soil-supporting crops like soybeans and reducing production of crops that contributed to soil erosion.”
Since 1973, the farm bill has included re-authorization of funding for food assistance programs. In 1977, Congress changed eligibility requirements, and in 2008, Food Stamps were renamed the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, SNAP. Less than 2% of our Federal budget is allocated for SNAP and according to the latest statistics from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 12% of our population benefits from SNAP. That’s about 1 in every 8 Americans.
Through the years farm bills have addressed climate change, conservation, and energy use. Discussions of the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 are already underway for the 2023 bill.
Besides crop insurance allotments, subsidies for specific crops (grown or not grown), conservation issues, and the amount a farmer can borrow, Congress is discussing nutrition benefits (SNAP, WIC, and the school lunch program).
Also part of the bill are rural development, foreign trade, energy, forestry, and research.
In the 2023 discussion, Nutrition programs will again account for about 85% of the farm bill. Eligibility depends on the amount of money people in the household earn (or don’t), how many people live in the home, if anyone is disabled … The form is long, but if the past is a predictor of the future, SNAP will provide on average, $6.00/per day per person. That’s not much, especially when healthy food is more expensive and harder to find in some urban neighborhoods and in rural areas, too.
The question the farm bill committee members must address and answer is how to meet the needs of so many varied constituents. Because the Nutrition portion is such a large percentage of the total package, and because it is used by people who can’t afford food, especially nutritious food in their times of difficulty, it has become the object of debate, sometimes intense debate.
The farm bill was passed to ensure a safe and abundant food supply, to help feed the hungry, invigorate rural communities, and help farmers take care of the environment as they provide food, feed, fuel, and fiber to the United States and the world.
If you want more details, here's a great article from the Farm Bureau.
Hearings on the 2023 farm bill have already begun.
It’s a tricky balance to be sure, especially in this time of deep partisan divides, to create policy that is fair to hungry babies, folks trying to save their family farms, and the taxpayers funding it all.
You can write or call members of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry and members of the House Committee on Agriculture.
Elizabeth Berg did not disappoint with her book Earth's the Right Place for Love (Random House, 2023). I learned Arthur Truluv’s backstory and in the reading, learned something about how to be kind. Just like we all thought, it’s a combination of how we are and our reactions to everything (good and bad and challenging) we experience. Thank you Ms. Berg!
-—be curious! (and generous)