Federal Farm Bill

Every five to seven years, the United States Congress passes what is arguably the single most important piece of legislation affecting the nation’s food environment. The federal farm bill, a massively complex piece of legislation that authorizes billions of dollars of taxpayer spending, is the largest source of support for America’s farmers and the programs that form the food safety net that provides food to this country’s needy. It plays a key role in decisions about what foods are grown and produced in the United States and, therefore, what Americans eat. The farm bill should be of interest to anyone who cares about the quality of the American diet.

The 2008 Farm Bill is 673 pages long and is divided into 15 “titles.” Each title deals with a major area of concern, some of which are not intuitively related to farming. Three of the farm bill’s titles are directly related to the consumption of fruits and vegetables: Title I – Commodity Programs, Title IV – Nutrition, and Title X – Horticulture and Organic Agriculture.

The farm bill’s commodity programs provide payments to farmers for growing specific kinds of crops. Many experts believe the most heavily subsidized crops – corn, soybeans, and wheat – are implicated in rising rates of obesity and obesity-related diseases. At the same time, commodity programs provide no support for fruits and green vegetables.

The nutrition title accounts for more than two-thirds of farm bill spending. Several nutrition assistance programs are authorized in the farm bill, including the nation’s largest and most important food safety net, food stamps. Since an estimated one-fifth of Americans depends on federal food assistance programs to supplement their diet, these programs have significant relevance to any efforts at increasing fruit and vegetable consumption. Key provisions in the bill include block grants, plant pest and disease management programs, and funding for farmers’ markets.

The farm bill debate needs to be broadened, especially to include the public health community. The farm bill affects every American and has a profound effect on public health. It offers a unique opportunity for the nation to create an integrated food system that supports healthy farms and healthy diets.

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