Why is SNAP Part of the Farm Bill?

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A long line of jobless and homeless men wait outside to get free dinner at New York's Municipal Lodging House in the winter of 1932-33 during the Great Depression. (AP Photo)

During the Great Depression, Americans foraged through garbage cans for food and dug in public parks to find roots they could eat. Parents reluctantly sent their children door-to-door to beg. Ninety-five people were admitted to New York City’s four largest hospitals due to starvation in 1931. Twenty of them died. That same year, the Municipal Lodging House for the homeless provided 408,100 lodgings and 1,024,247 meals. A year later, in 1932, it provided 889,984 lodgings and 2,688,266 meals, at a time when the entire New York City population was only 6.9 million people.

Relief agencies nationwide lost their ability to prevent starvation. Local governments, expected to fund relief efforts themselves, began running out of money to do so. In May 1932, the average relief grant in Philadelphia (out of which people were expected to pay for food and all other basic expenses) was cut to $4.32 per family per week, equaling about $62 per week in today’s money. In New York City, the average weekly relief grant fell to $2.39 (about $35 in today’s money). Baltimore gave needy families an average of 80 cents and Atlanta provided 60 cents per week for whites and less for blacks.

The nation was near the point of revolution. At times, armed men would go into stores in large groups to demand credit and, when refused, take food anyway. The term “food riot” became popular in the press.

Adding fuel to the fire was the country’s glut of unused food. Neither farmers nor factory workers had the money to buy each others’ products. Oklahoma union activist and editor Oscar Ameringer wrote: “The farmers are being pauperized by the poverty of the industrial populations and the industrial populations are being pauperized by the poverty of the farmers.”

Today it seems obvious to most of us that government should have purchased some of the excess agricultural products and distributed them to the hungry, but at the time, opposition to government involvement in social welfare, as well as the belief in the unlimited abilities of American charities, was deeply ingrained in American thought. The idea of the government buying food and distributing it for free seemed radical, particularly to the Republicans in charge of the nation. In 1931, when Democratic leader William McAdoo suggested that surplus wheat be distributed to the unemployed, President Herbert Hoover rejected the idea, saying, “I am confident that the hungry and unemployed will be cared for by our sense of voluntary organization and community service.” Ironically, Hoover had first become nationally known in America for his effective leadership in providing aid to starving Europeans following World War I, but he couldn’t accept the reality that his beloved United States needed that same type of help.

“I am confident that the hungry and unemployed will be cared for by our sense of voluntary organization and community service.” -Herbert Hoover

As America’s crisis worsened, Hoover would not budge in his opposition to domestic relief. In a 1932 speech, he decried government aid, saying: “A cold and distant charity which puts out its sympathy only through the tax collector yields only a meager dole of unloving and perfunctory relief.” He was clearly blind to the fact that millions of Americans on the verge of starvation would have been grateful for any sort of food aid, no matter how unloving and perfunctory. Two days before the election of 1932, which he lost in a landslide to Franklin D. Roosevelt, Hoover declared himself unable to “find a single locality where people are being deprived of food or shelter.”

Hoover was the nation’s first significant right-wing hunger denier. It is no wonder a conservative think tank, the Hoover Institution, is named after him. But he was not alone in his opposition to government food aid. Wealthy people who dominated the boards of charities complained that providing food aid would promote dependency and that private charity was more efficient than government aid. Even progressive social workers believed that food aid “was an antiquated form of relief, inconsistent with modern social work practice and the dignity of the client.”

Yet the severity of the crisis eventually sunk in for many of our nation’s leaders, and necessity trumped ideology, as even staunch Republican Congressman Hamilton Fish supported a proposal to have the government buy excess wheat for distribution to the poor, saying, “It is a disgrace and an outrage that this country of ours, with overabundance of food stuffs, should permit millions of our own people to continue to be undernourished and hungry.” Citing instances in which Congress had aided the victims of disasters abroad, Fish argued that the “first function of government is to take care of its own people in time of great emergency.” Permitting people to starve, he declared, was “creating a hotbed for communism.”

When Roosevelt took office, the controversy over whether to support food aid versus other kinds of aid remained unsettled. His agriculture department received widespread and withering criticism for slaughtering and then discarding hogs in order to reduce supply. In response, FDR ordered the department to start distributing the meat to the hungry.

Today’s liberals tend to forget that FDR repeatedly opposed giving out free money and food without requiring work (especially when they blasted Bill Clinton for supposedly betraying the New Deal tradition by supporting welfare reform). Roosevelt said direct relief was “a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit.” Instead of continuing to sponsor a “spiritual and moral disintegration fundamentally destructive to the national fiber,” he said, the government must find work for those in need and able to work. “We must preserve not only the bodies of the employed from destruction but also their self-respect, their self-reliance and courage and determination. Therefore, the Federal government must and shall quit this business of relief.”

A pragmatist who sometimes contradicted himself in order to solve pressing national problems, Roosevelt also significantly expanded the efforts — begun in the previous administration, against Hoover’s will — to distribute free commodities to low-income Americans. FDR included other goods in addition to wheat and significantly increased the volume of surplus food purchased and distributed by the federal government.

FDR also supported creation of the first Food Stamp Program, in 1938. The program operated by permitting people on relief to buy orange stamps equal to their normal food expenditures; for every one dollar worth of orange stamps purchased, 50 cents worth of blue stamps were received. Orange stamps could be used to buy any food; blue stamps could only be used to buy food determined by the Department of Agriculture to be surplus. Over the course of nearly four years, the program reached approximately 20 million people in nearly half of the nation’s counties, and cost a total of $262 million (about three billion dollars in 2006 dollars).

So that is the story of how food aid was tied to farm aid from the start. Today, though many rural and suburban people rely on federal nutrition assistance programs (such as SNAP), they’re perceived as urban programs. Thus, they’ve remained in Farm Bills in order to try to win votes from urban members of Congress. House Republicans now want to separate SNAP from the Farm Bill in order to make it easier to make cuts.

In my opinion, farm bills should be classified as “food bills” and SNAP should continue to be part of them. Food producers and consumers are mutually dependent upon each other. When so many Americans are low-income and hungry or food insecure, that limits the amount of money they can spend on food, thus limiting income for food producers. When producers can’t afford to stay on their land or face environmental threats, it threatens the availability of nutritious, fresh food for New York consumers. A true food bill would aid hungry Americans and small family farmers alike.

Joel Berg leads the New York City Coalition Against Hunger and is a Senior Fellow at the Center For American Progress. This post is adapted from his book All You Can Eat: How Hungry is America?

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  • Anonymous

    A few greed driven, unethical people had a provision sneaked quietly into the portion of the agriculture bill about meat inspection that included “equine” in the funding language. I was raised on a livestock farm, horses are not livestock, are not raised as livestock nor treated as such and this is an atrocity of american values. It is inexcusable Congress can be “swayed” by a handful of greed driven foreign interests to slaughter our pets and service animals.

    I truly hope people who care about horses and other pets will speak out to their members of Congress IMMEDIATELY against horse slaughter of any American horses. Our society will suffer greatly if as a culture we begin to slaughter and eat animals we treat as pets. We form bonds with horses from their birth and as riders on their backs. They are taught to trust us, ignore their natural fears and serve us. Horses must be afforded the same compassionate end of life as dogs, cats and other pets receive.

  • Anonymous

    95 people admitted to NYC hospitals in 1939 for starvation? How many were admitted this year for diseases caused by obesity? How many of these were recipients of SNAP? You don’t ask that kind of question, do you, you absurd socialist. Negative consequences of government intervention are never mentioned by you.
    My people were farmers during the great depression, and did just fine. The people that lost their farms were those caught in the credit bubble created by the federal reserve, and fractional lending during the twenties.

    The reason the great depression lasted so long, is that government intervened, on the advice of Keynesian economists. This is the same reason the current depression has gone on so long. Government needs to get out of business, and stay out!

  • Anonymous

    Horses are indeed livestock. They pulled wagons, and plows on both my grandfathers farms, until they bought tractors. In America, horses are first and foremost working animals, even if some people make hobbies out of them, like others do with tractors. In Mongolia, where horses were likely first domesticated, they are still raised for meat, and milk, as they always have been. Get over your normalcy bias. Horses are good eating!

  • PBSarafian

    “During the Great Depression of the 1930s, agricultural price support programs led to vast amounts of food being deliberately destroyed at a time when malnutrition was a serious problem in the United States and hunger marches were taking place in cities across the country. For example, the federal government bought 6 million hogs in 1933 alone and destroyed them. Huge amounts of farm produce were plowed under, in order to keep it off the market and maintain prices at the officially fixed level, and vast amounts of milk were poured down the sewers for the same reason. Meanwhile, many American children were suffering from diseases caused by malnutrition.”

    –Thomas Sowell, Basic Economics (3rd Edition, Basic Books, 2007), p. 56.

  • Benjamin Kane

    Big farms have the 14% profit insurance just like small farms with subsidies lopsided to corn and it’s byproducts. Corn and high fructose corn syrup are the least nutritious ingredients added into today’s food to add bulk. Fructose is also sweeter than glucose and sucrose so it will bring more customers back. Because of the supply side subsidies, corn based (or enhanced) foods are cheaper. Now on the demand side, a growing percentage of customers are having to rely on SNAP and other programs due to unemployment and underemployment. Because the limit is roughly $3 a day for a family to live on, then these people will buy the cheapest foods. The most unhealthy foods are the cheapest (because of the original subsidy), so people will purchase foods based on the biggest bang for the buck. So, when SNAP is cut, people eat more unhealthy which adds to the people’s likelihood of needing prolonged medical care. This also leads to medical care rising which also makes “budget hawks” to see both subsidies of medical and food costs growing and draining tax revenue coffers. So which side gets fixed, supply or demand, the side that has the financial ability to afford lobbyists or the side that can’t even eat three meals a day. My view is that the government’s insurance subsidy should have a cap on farm size to qualify. Second, remove the favoritism of corn by making all grains or fillers get the same amount of insurance. Third, double the SNAP budget (because healthy is twice the price) but go back to an approved food list like WIC that already states that no corn syrup or artificial additives. It might be a pain of changing the status quo, but the cost savings to Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security Disability should offset the extra SNAP cost. A side effect of this will lead stores to try to increase sales of real juices, for example, compared to the perennial discount sales of sodas. For the current cost per ounce, sodas trounce the same cost per ounce of juices and milks. —- And if you are wondering what is the quickest way to stimulate the national economy in a time frame in less than 6 months, I have one word for you: diesel. Diesel-based goods transport cost has increased faster any other business cost. This gets forwarded as fast as possible to customers of retail and food stores (besides other industries like hospitality). The 4 billion that is already given to oil companies should either be used to subsidize diesel specifically or be shifted to purchasing (nationalizing) oil refineries that are sitting idle to increase the profits to oil companies. Another third option is a voucher system that every business that uses diesel for transport can apply for to saving them roughly half the price of fuel. This option will make the oil companies the happiest as sales will increase and the economy will grow. And one last nugget: The price of milk, since milk’s first subsidy decades ago, has almost perfectly matched the price of the fuel required to get it to market with less than a few percent of difference based on fluctuations. This is the nature of that business. Next time at Wal-Mart look at the price of a gallon of gas out front vs the price of a gallon of milk inside. Any difference will be able to be traced directly to some government subsidy.

  • Benjamin Kane

    This is perfectly correct.

  • psarafian

    Mr. Kane,

    Suppose everything you say is 100% correct. I will say to you what I’ve said to my own children; We’ve never been very hungry.

    Shouldn’t we suppose that starving children in Africa, India, etc… would be more than happy to be “poisoned” by corn syrup laden foods rather than suffer hunger pangs every day of their precious lives?

    When we see the pitiful bodies of children suffering from starvation, their bloated bellies and skeletal bodies, wouldn’t we be more than happy to offer them “cheap” food with corn syrup than have them grazing on grass like cattle?

    My grandmother lived to be 102 years old, yet she lived on nothing more than cornbread, eggs and beans for the first 12 years of her life. Most of us would be very surprised to learn how little we are able to eat and still thrive. Perhaps government elitists residing in Ivory Towers should contemplate this fact. “Let them eat cake” had huge repercussions. Power-mongering elitists never learn the lessons history teaches.

    Elitist UK Parliament hypocrites have banned GMO foods from their own table while insisting that the serfs eat it up and be grateful their bellies have something to digest. Read all about it here: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2345937/GM-food-menu-Parliaments-restaurant-despite-ministers-telling-public-drop-opposition.html

    Yeah, do as we SAY, not as we DO. No good ending here as blowback always sucks, for them.

  • OlMamma

    I’d gladly see a horse or a dog sacrificed to feed a starving child. We have enough food here to be very picky about what we eat. I’m all for learning to eat more plants. I haven’t had meat in a month. I never buy altered products like hydrogenated oils and high fructose sweeteners, but would if I couldn’t access anything else. There is a food chain. It’s real.

  • Anonymous

    I think nutrition and food aide should transfer with its budget to H&HS it is more closely aligned with their mission.

  • Anonymous

    The truth is horse meat does no go to feeding any starving people but is sold as a delicacy and that is sad as the process is horrific and horses do not except the process in the same manner as cows and hogs. They do not ship in crowded trucks like other livestock without being seriously injured and many cannot be used they are so damaged. No matter how it used to be, the truth is now horses are pets and pleasure/performance animals and it is immoral to eat pets. No one in this country needs to and let’s pray, they never do. There is a food chain but a few things are sacred and not needed. If it gets that bad maybe we should eat people also. I understand that occurredin North Korea, in the countryside.

  • Anonymous

    One very real problem about food that is not addressed is that many people do not understand what good nutrition is. Bread, even whole wheat, is not healthy. It is empty calories. People fill on starch, sugars, and fats which have calories but no nutrition. Nutrients and vitamins come from vegetables. Folic acid is in prenatal vitamins so babies develop healthy brains. Dementia patients have lack of folic acid in their brains. Since we understand that both ends of life requires foliates, why don’t people realize that children and adults need folic acid as well. Foliates are found in green vegetables which many children do not eat. Perhaps taste buds are corrupted by sugar, fat, and salt.

    Remember how breast feeding caught on? Back in the 50′s only graduate students nursed their babies. Then college girls. Now everyone who can. So I expect diets that are mostly produce will catch on. All those packaged, processed, preserved foods, mostly starch, fat, sugar, salt, and chemical preservatives

    People can afford to eat healthy if they just learn to shop and prepare food right. Cooking from scratch is a lost art. All anyone really needs to buy is fresh fruit and vegetables and dried beans. Meat, fish, and dairy can be added by choice, but less is best both for the body and the budget.
    I can not bear to think that American families are going hungry. Sometimes even the obese lack nutrition. Again, the sugar, fat, and starch are empty calories and wheat drives hunger, but the body is not getting nutrients.
    There has to be a better way.

  • btxusa

    Fox Guarding the Hen House? Perhaps the solution would be to move food/nutrition assistance to the Dept of Health and school food programs to the Dept of Education (teaching nutrition as youngsters receive food assistance). Subsidize organic food crops and cut subsidies from anything that is not food. Create an ag bill that deals ONLY with agriculture — not consumption and food assistance.

  • Jerry

    Even if you read the labels very carefully, you may be consuming vast amounts of altered products. BTW, most horses dog and cats have been injected with drugs that make them inedible.

    Oh yeah, the food chain, throughout history it has been supplemented in with human flesh.

    You obviously have not put much thought in this.

    Bon appetit…

  • Kristi Jalics

    This is for PegasusWing: Folates are very valuable but they are not the only source of nutirents as you seem to suggest. It is important to eat them, but people need to learn more about nutrition than this.

  • Phil Manke

    I agree with (btxusa); Food/nutrition programs moved to Dept of Health, and school food programs to Dept of Edu! Lets keep it relavent. Farm bill lobbiests are not experts on child education or nutritional needs. They want money for farmers, period! That means cutting food for poor people and childrenn wherever possible.
    That is sooo broken!

  • Phil Manke

    I disagree. Meat is meat! The govt just needs to make sure it is labeled correctly and then let consumers decide.
    Horses certainly are livestock. They are generally leaner than cattle, which are usually overly fatty and lead to heart disease. You may need to check your emotional ego.

  • Phil Manke

    Cattle, swine, poultry, etc. are also laced with drugs. It’s how factory farms keep them alive! Wake up.

  • Anonymous

    It is sad to see our culture and society continuing to deteriorate. The overwhelming majority understand the ethical and moral distinction of showing compassion and respect to animals that form strong bonds which you do when you raise, teach and ride a horse. they become your partner in your activities. Just because they are large and do not live in the house does not mean they are not pets and companion animals. There seems to be a very real lack of experience with horses from the comments of a few.

  • Kaitlyn Fredricks

    just as Annie implied I’m alarmed that a person can get paid $8797 in a few weeks on the internet. have you read this page w­w­w.K­E­P­2.c­o­m

  • Anonymous

    Yes, dear, I know, but I wanted to be specific about at least one. People just fill up and are left starving for nutrients. A balanced diet will meet that need for most people, but others need supplements. Some people just do not seem to retain vitamins. Young children will eat good food until parent corrupt their taste buds with candy, cookies, fries, mac and chemicals, sugar. Then they do not eat greens. As a foster mother, it was hard to change children’s tastes to healthy foods, so supplements had to help.

  • Karyl Severson

    This is a really helpful view of history that we did not get in school back in the 50s-60s. Thanks!

  • Anonymous

    SNAP and all other food aide (meals on wheels, subsidized scool meals, WIC etc should be moved to H&HS. Then the corporate agribusiness welfare would be stripped of the cover of charity. It is venal & reprehensible that multimillionaire agribusinesses should (compliments of thr revenue risk mgt insurance program) be guaranteed 88-85% of their average AG revenue based on a very generous formula as something they are entitled to have because they are farmers. Sen. Stabenow, and others, had the nerve to refer to the premium payments by farmers without mentioning that 62¢ of every premium dollar is paid by We The Taxpayers(WTT); WTT pay the insurer 40¢ for every premium dollar to offset the insurers admin. costs & if the losses exceed premiums for the year WTT pay the insurer enough to eliminate any loss at all. Presumably if the insurers offerred insurance in a free market (with no subsidies) farmers would not buy it.

    In 2010 Cargill Corp. had 107.88 Billion in revenues and collected 51 million in ag. subsidies. Given the deficits that year WTT borrowed that 51 M
    51M is about 10,000 max. Pell grants. If we were to borroe 51M i’d rather see it spent om Pell grants the Cargill Corp – a gigantic “faux” family owned (well 85% family owned) business.

    So poor old and young citizens lose important nutrition support so Cargill or a multimillionaire farmer can get their entitlement

  • Anonymous

    My grandfather used horses & tractors until i was 5. When he transitioned to tractors only he sold Claytpn & Bessy to a slaughter because he did not want them abused in the hands of a very marginal farmer who could not afford adequate food or shelter or vet care.

  • OL GRIFFIN

    People can afford to eat healthy if they just learn to shop and prepare food right. Cooking from scratch is a lost art. All anyone really needs to buy is fresh fruit and vegetables and dried beans.

    pesticides GMO’s & additives counter just about all that you said ..unless you are growing yourself or near organic you are eating mostly altered food .

  • OL GRIFFIN

    (When we see the pitiful bodies of children suffering from starvation, their bloated bellies and skeletal bodies, wouldn’t we be more than happy to offer them “cheap” food with corn syrup than have them grazing on grass like cattle?

    My grandmother lived to be 102 years old, yet she lived on nothing more than cornbread, eggs and beans for the first 12 years of her life. Most of us would be very surprised to learn how little we are able to eat and still thrive.)

    IF the food was still organically grow & not depleted of vitamins & nutrients , the comparison would be laudable.

  • OL GRIFFIN

    Regional dairies & less antibiotics would have lessened transport cost ,

    And one last nugget: The price of milk, since milk’s first subsidy decades ago, has almost perfectly matched the price of the fuel required to get it to market with less than a few percent of difference based on fluctuations. This is the nature of that business. Next time at Wal-Mart look at the price of a gallon of gas out front vs the price of a gallon of milk inside. Any difference will be able to be traced directly to some government subsidy.

  • Anonymous

    True. I do grow some vegetables, but not enough and most families do not grow anything. Our choices have been taken away by big corporations and the politicians they were able to buy off. Still vegetables laced with pesticides must be better than wheat and sugar laced with pesticides or pig grown on GMO corn and pesticides.

  • OL GRIFFIN

    playing catch up to all that ALEC damage has done is going to be harder than folk realize. Laws against collecting rain water & such have been enacted with no public debate

  • Paige

    My mother was raised during the depression. My Grandmother and my mother would travel hitchhiking across the country with all their belongings in one suitcase. They lived in rooming houses and my Grandmother worked wherever she could. Growing up in NYC I scavenged for food in dumpsters at factories where they would throw out food that was edible, sealed in jars and still cold. Another family of poor children would be there beside us doing the same to survive. After we moved into an area near the projects I would walk with my mother into the projects to collect canned beans, dry milk, canned eggs, spam and whatever we could get. There were 6 children in my family, one with a major disability and my mother worked and held our family together. My mother was a veteran and just passed, appropriately on Veteran’s Day. I am now 60 years old, unemployed due to sequestration and not collecting unemployment since it ended 8 months ago. I am now living off my savings, food stamps and Medicaid. I have a part-time job for seven weeks this summer at minimum wage. Without food stamps I would not have been able to survive as long as I have so far. It is hard for an older person to find employment. Since the summer job I have is not on a bus route I need a car which just needed $700 in repairs to keep it running. That is just about what I will have earned this summer including the cost of gas. I am grateful for the work that I have been able to obtain but know that I am very dependent on food stamps. There seems to be many other ways they can cut costs rather than attacking programs that feed people and help keep them healthy. I shared my story because I felt that too many times the politicians manipulate the system that is supposed to serve the people and not be used for personal profit. This kind of unethical and possibly criminal behaviors should be discontinued and those who participate in unethical practices should be prosecuted.

  • Darius Dpas Deepazz Smith

    Thank you for sharing!

  • Alen Agaronov

    I applaud Joel Berg for this much-needed article. I personally find that there is a lesson learned in the concurrent situations regarding food security in the U.S. and in India. http://wp.me/p128HP-n6

  • fmendoza

    I don’t want to hear a another democrat crying about sequester cuts to the military. the military is responsible for the large deficit we face today. the military is finally facing the reality. that fighting two unnesarry wars. would lead to the lost decade. now their finding out that their is not much left behind. unemployment forclosures and half the country living in poverty. we need all funds available to fight poverty,education and huger in America.

  • fmendoza

    I don’t want to hear democrats @ republicans crying about the sequester cuts to the military. the military is responsible for the large deficit we face today. the military is finally facing the reality that fighting two unnecessary wars would lead to a lost decade. now their realizing that their is not much left behind. only unemployment, foreclosures. and half the country living in poverty. we need all available funds to help us fight poverty. education. and hunger in America. we should not apologize for feeding America. the farm bill must be fully funded. citizen