By former USDA Secretary John R. Block
Hello everybody out there in farm country. This is Rick Frank sitting in for John Block. This radio commentary is brought to you by the National Corn Growers Association, CropLife America, and Renewable Fuels Association. They are all friends, supporters, and allies of healthy farm economy and prosperous rural America. Thank you.
And now for today’s commentary –
The Trump Administration reportedly plans to move up to $110 billion of USDA food assistance programs to a new “welfare” agency attached to HHS. While advocates of seriously reducing the cost of our welfare and nutrition programs (such as the Heritage Foundation) might find this idea appealing, it is truly very bad for American agriculture.
Food programs have long represented a partnership between feeding the poor and supporting agriculture. Section 32 programs, for example, enable USDA to purchase food items which are in temporary surplus – for example meat and vegetables – and donate these nutritious foods to national and state food assistance programs. In 2016 USDA purchased 11 million pounds of cheese which was provided to food banks and pantries across the US. This helped tackle the highest surplus of cheese in 30 years and provide for those in need.
Since 1946, it has been bi-partisan Congressional policy…as a measure of national security to safeguard the health and well-being of the nation’s children and to encourage the domestic consumption of nutritious agricultural commodities by assisting the states through supporting the non-profit school lunch and breakfast programs. What happens to this laudable goal if these programs are moved to HHS?
On his first day in office, Secretary Perdue wrote to USDA employees: “Do right and feed everyone so that we enhance the American public’s confidence in the important work of the Department of Agriculture.” This can’t happen if the food programs go to HHS.
The largest nutrition program being considered for transfer is the SNAP or Food Stamp program. If that is moved, what will happen to school lunch, school breakfast, and WIC…all targets for serious budget reductions?
Stripped of a large percentage of its budget, will USDA still merit being a Cabinet-level Department? What will that say about American agriculture? Will the urban-rural coalition on Capitol Hill forged by support for feeding programs and agriculture break down and jeopardize enactment of the next Farm Bill? In the last Farm Bill process we saw a letter from 530 organizations, both farm and nutrition groups, opposing the House decision to remove Food Stamps from the Farm Bill. The Senate thankfully dropped this provision. What happens to the House and Senate Agriculture Committees stripped of much of their authority?
While history suggests this idea will not proceed without serious opposition, particularly since it requires Congressional approval, it is truly a bad idea for America’s agriculture. It is always legitimate to review our budget; but reductions should not be accomplished through sleight of hand in moving these programs to HHS thereby denigrating the importance of American agriculture. As Secretary Perdue continues to say, “do right and feed everyone.”
Until next week, I am Rick Frank sitting in for John Block in Washington, D.C.
John Block was Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture from 1981-1985, where he played a key role in the development of the 1985 Farm Bill. If you would like to review his radio shows going back more than 20 years, visit johnblockreports.com.