The $286 billion meal

Every five years, with all the grace of an overburdened mule, a new Farm Bill plods through Congress piled high with price supports and agricultural subsidies, ethanol initiatives and conservation measures. As it does, each representative and senator has his or her own requests to add to it. Last month, Senate amendments—250 in all—caused the $286 billion funding package to founder on Capitol Hill.

Mounths to feed: MANNA FoodBank volunteer John Joyner packs boxes at the nonprofit’s River Road location in Asheville. Joyner has given time to MANNA for 12 years. Photo By Jonathan Welch

And while a stalled Farm Bill may be little sweat off the backs of wealthy politicians, it puts a more vulnerable population at risk: The nation’s poor and hungry.

“For a long time we’ve been pushing and pushing,” says Kitty Schaller, executive director of MANNA FoodBank in Asheville, describing efforts by her organization and its parent agency, America’s Second Harvest, to get a Farm Bill passed. Their agitation is well-founded: 70 percent of the bill’s funds guide food policy in this country, including government assistance for the hungry.

“People are saying that we can have a continuing resolution, that we can do something for a year,” Schaller says. “But hungry families need the security of a bill that is authorized for five years.”

MANNA, along with the 375 agencies and churches in Western North Carolina it distributes food to, receives most of its support from private sources. But its programs also depend in good measure on federal help in the form of food stamps and emergency food assistance, the latter of which Schaller says “helps put food in our warehouse.”

The 2007 Farm Bill would raise emergency food-assistance funds by 50 percent over the next five years, from $140 to $250 million. It would also increase the federal outlay for food stamps by more than $4 billion over the same period, a vital step, Schaller says, for the many Americans who currently receive the program’s minimum of $10 a month.

These are hard times for food banks. Federal price supports are not what they used to be, yielding less surplus food for charities to take advantage of. And distribution systems have become more precise in recent years, resulting in fewer grocery overruns. At the same time, poverty is on the rise and chronic hunger—previously a concern for only the very poor—is slithering up the nation’s economic rungs.

As Western North Carolina’s primary distribution point for donated food, MANNA’s inventory eventually makes it to the tables of 115,000 less-privileged clients in 16 counties. And right now, says Schaller, MANNA’S affiliate agencies “are telling us that the need has never been so great.”

“More than one in six people in Western North Carolina is hungry enough to be at the doors of a food pantry,” she says. “About a third of them are kids. They didn’t ask for it. They deserve our help.”

To find out how you can help move the U.S. Farm Bill forward, visit www.hungeractioncenter.org or call MANNA FoodBank at 299-3676.

 

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