More than 2.5 million Floridians are on food stamps, up from three years ago where 1.2 million residents received assistance.
That’s according to records kept by the Department of Children and Families, which administers the program.
DCF Secretary George Sheldon told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel Tuesday that Florida’s food stamp rolls grew the fastest in the nation since 2007.
Some of this is due to increased efforts on the part of states to expand access, but it is also, I think, a compelling measure of the economic situation. But it is more than that – food stampls, as I’ve been arguing for many years, are important because as they become more universal (we’re already at 1-in-9 Americans using food stamps, next year’s numbers will probably be 1-in-8, and many states are at 1-in-6 – and American children are at 1-in-4) food stamps become more important. They shift from a safety net program to a basic food subsidy that serves a larger and larger percentage of Americans who can’t afford food. And that should look very strange to all of us.
The case for industrial agriculture has rested heavily on cheap food over the years – the idea that it was worth all the subsidies, the land degradation, the health costs because we all had plenty was a fundamental premise of the move to industrial farming. But if industrial agriculture can’t provide affordable food even with its massive subsidies (at this point a large portion of industrially produced food is being subsidized twice – first at the agricultural subsidy level and then at the food stamp level) what is the compelling case for large scale industrial conventional production?
Perhaps the focus should move. Michael Pollan has proposed, for example, that food stamps should pay double when used at farmer’s markets. Right now only about 40% of all farmer’s markets in the US are set up to take food stamps – making food stamp and WIC acceptance universal, and doubling pay outs when used to buy healthy food would do a lot both for local agriculture and for those who are struggling to eat and eat well.
The case for bringing agricultural subsidies to small family farmers is more complex, and among others, Gene Logsdon has argued that subsidizing organic agriculture (which is beginning to occur) may not be the answer:
This is supposed to be good news. Our dear government has finally recognized that organic farmers are at least as deserving of bribery as all those sinful chemical farmers. After all, industrial agriculture gets $17.2 billion dollars in direct payments every year so surely a little bit of money ought also to go to holy, humble, horse and hoe husbandmen who also help keep the world from starvation. In fact, organic farmers now have their very own farm subsidy program under the Environmental Quality Incentive Program to the tune of $50 million bucks. Ain’t that wonderful?
I will go as far out on the end of my bucket loader as I can and bet even money that this is the beginning of the end of organic farming. Government learned a long time ago that farmers, like everyone else, can be persuaded to do what the government wants done by handing out money. The result? Since government subsidy programs got serious about 70 years ago, the number of commercial farmers has plummeted from over 12 million to something less that one million. That’s how helpful the payments have been. Then along came small organic farmers who although unsubsidized for the most part, began doubling and tripling in number with each passing year. Whoa. Can’t have that, for heaven’s sake. That might mean that government subsidies don’t really help farmers. Maybe, perish the thought, government doesn’t know how to help farmers. Or, perish two thoughts, maybe government doesn’t really want to help farmers but just wants cheap food so the people can afford to buy more SUVs. Any trend toward farmers becoming successful without government subsidies has to be stopped. Uncle knows how to do that. Offer them money.
If you think I am only joking, examine the rules of this new game. The fifty million dollar “Organic Initiative” subsidy is to help organic farmers, and I quote, “implement conservation practices on the farm.” Hmmm. Isn’t every real organic farmer already doing that? Isn’t that part of any proper definition of organic farming?
Rule number two: “Conservation practices that farmers have already adopted are not eligible for payment.” Amazing grace. If you have already been doing what every responsible farmer should be doing, you don’t get any money, sucker.
Logsdon goes on to observe that with the inclusion of “transitional” farmers and the emphasis on giving money to those previously making the biggest negative environmental impact, the subsidies will go disproportionately to industrial organic producers.
But at a bare minimum we could ask ourselves about whether agricultural subsidy payments should exist at all? Most organic and small scale producers would be happy just to have the playing field levelled a bit. At a minimum, we need to ask ourselves this -if the food we get industrially is unaffordable in an environmental sense and unaffordable in a practical “how do we get dinner” sense, what’s the case for conventional corporate ag again?