Throughout human history, the image of a malnourished person is one of skin and bones. But so successful has the last half-century of American agricultural policy been in reversing this trend that, today, Americans suffer from an epidemic of bad food that is disguised under ever-deeper layers of fat.
Every five years or so, Congress labors to bring forth a new farm bill. It is a giant book of rules and regulations, policies and priorities that costs the taxpayers billions in the name of food security, but the safety net it provides serves mostly to protect those who least need the help. The result has been perverse incentives to flood the market with cheap cereal grains, mostly corn and wheat, that become the starchy, artificially sweetened, food-like substances that fill our grocers' shelves and our school lunch trays.
Last month, the Senate approved a new farm bill that promises to cut federal spending on farm, conservation and nutrition programs by some $23 billion over the next decade. This week, the House is chiming in with a bill that promises savings of $35 billion over the same period.
Both bills, however, show far too little change in philosophy from decades of federal support for oversupplies of grains. Even though the Senate version would phase out many of the direct payment programs that fattened the bottom line of huge mechanized agribusiness over the years, it shifted most of the money into a crop insurance subsidy program that would not encourage any major change in the way food is produced, or who gets paid the most for it.
The House version, before the Agriculture Committee this week, is even more retrograde. For one thing, it would preserve some price-support targets, a way to protect producers from the plummeting market prices that would, in a free market, follow their habitual overproduction. It hides this boost in corporate welfare by cutting the more traditional welfare program, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps.
The House would cut SNAP spending by $16 billion over a decade. The Senate, only $4 billion. The Senate's target could, in theory, be met by changes in eligibility rules that have expanded the program into households where the need is slim. The House goals can only be met by hurting poor families.
And, as their food budgets shrink, low-income households will make them stretch the way Americans have for many years. Buying cheap, filling, but barely nutritious junk that is in danger of making the next generation of Americans the first one to have a shorter lifespan than their parents.
Who says federal programs never accomplish anything?