The Congressional War on Food Safety and Food Stamps

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Today, the House is voting on a horrible idea: cuts to the inspection and food assistance programs we so desperately need

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Just when things were looking up—more money for school lunch, a new plate instead of the Food Pyramid—Congress steps up with a really bad idea. Today, the House is set to vote on a bill that would cut funds for food safety inspections and eliminate federal food assistance for some of the most vulnerable Americans.

The bill is H.R. 2112, or the 2012 Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act. Passed out of committee on May 31, it funds a vast assortment of programs from SNAP (formerly known as food stamps) and WIC, which supports pregnant and nursing women and young children, to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's food inspection service and Michelle Obama's pet project the Healthy Food Financing Initiative, which aims to make healthy foods more available in low-income neighborhoods.

Thanks to the first lady, food policy has become fashionable. But the new bill proves the food lobby isn't yet strong enough to keep away hatchet-wielding reps who want to boost their deficit-cutting credentials. In a statement late Monday night, the Obama administration voiced "serious concerns" about the bill, noting that cuts to the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service might require the agency to furlough inspectors—hardly wise when the massive E. coli outbreak in Europe is a reminder of the vulnerability of the global food system.

Anti-poverty groups, meanwhile, are panicking. If the bill passes, mandatory food funding will be cut $46.5 million, with California, Texas, Florida, New York, and Illinois taking the biggest hits. Reductions to federal nutrition programs could push more people—130,000 seniors, and as many as 475,000 pregnant or nursing women, infants, and children, according to hunger relief charity Feeding America—to local charities for food assistance. And this at the time when other new cuts will slash the availability of government commodities that are distributed to church food pantries, soup kitchens, and other local charities.

The only good news is that the Senate still must craft its own spending bill before legislation goes to the president. It's a chance, albeit a small one, to apply a little sense to the vicious debate over dollars and cents.


Image: Laszlo Balogh/Reuters

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Jane Black, formerly a food writer at The Washington Post, is currently at work on a book about food culture and class in Huntington, West Virginia. Learn more at www.janeblack.net.

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