Millions of Americans will sit down with friends and families this week at a Thanksgiving table laden with more food than anyone could possibly eat. While we bask in the warmth of our company, keep in mind that we have millions of families who simply don’t have access to enough food on a daily basis to maintain healthy lives. A recent report from the US Department of Agriculture found that in 2012, 14.5% percent (17.6 million households) were ‘food insecure,’ meaning that these families lacked adequate resources to ensure a predictable supply of nutritious food in their homes. Meanwhile, Washington continues to provide subsidies of about $14.9 billion to American farmers to grow corn and soyabeans in large commercial farms which typically produce more food than we, as a nation, can consume. This is the paradox of America’s food policy.

Congress has been trying to pass an extension of the farm bill which, like many other federal policies, remains mired in partisan politics. House Republicans would like to continue the subsidies, but have proposed cutting food stamps benefits by an additional $40 billion over the next 10 years on top of $5 billion in cuts that already went into effect in early November. The benefits of programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, as the food stamps program is called, are well-documented. The food stamp program serves more than 47 million people and is one the country’s most important anti-hunger programs. This report shows that in 2011, food stamps kept 4.7 million Americans, including 2.1 million children, out of poverty, and lifted more children — 1.5 million — above the poverty line than any other program.

Studies have also found that food stamps not only help to address the urgent need of hunger, but also help to generate economic activity that can help strengthen an economy that still feels the impact of the ‘Great Recession.” Food stamps benefits help increase the family’s take-home pay by approximately 20 to 50 percent. Economist Mark Zandi at Moody’s Analytics showed in a report that every dollar spent in SNAP benefits generates $1.71 in economic activity that goes towards the salaries of check-out clerks in grocery stores, truckers carrying food across the country, and even back to the farmer growing food for American consumption.

Beyond making cuts to domestic food stamps program, debates around the farm bill also include the international food-aid program. The United States is the world’s largest food aid donor and has a budget of $1.4 billion to supply food to humanitarian crises around the world. Americans may feel good that their country is quick to send food overseas, but it is bad economic policy. American food aid sent in bulk has over the years contributed to depressing world crop prices and hurting farmers in the developing world who cannot compete with the low-prices of American farm products – made possible by government subsidies.

A more sensible food-aid policy for the United States would be to source and buy food closer to disaster areas rather than shipping it all the way from the United States. It would be cheaper, quicker, and would also help to support local farmers overseas and stimulate local markets outside the U.S. At present, the U.S. is limited to only 20% of its total food aid – $300 million a year – that can be dedicated to local purchases. President Obama has supported increasing the limit to 45% which would enable the U.S. to buy food locally abroad for distributing aid. However, powerful lobby groups supporting interests in America’s farm states or having ties with the shipping industry oppose any changes to the current structure of overseas food aid.

Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel Prize- winning economist, calls this convoluted logic of America’s food policy and the inequalities it breeds classic ‘rent-seeking’ behavior. Entrenched interests have helped to skew public policy on food whose impacts are felt here and globally. The American public knows better than to continue to silently help to perpetuate these endless cycles of short-sighted policy-making on such a critical issue like food.

This week when you sit down at your Thanksgiving meal, remember where our nation’s food comes from and where it goes, the lives that are touched, and, most importantly, who is being left out, and why.

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Wishing you all a peaceful holiday.


* For more information about food policy, please visit the programs section of our website, where you can find archived videos from recent public programs such as The Right to Food, Global and Local and Confronting a Superstorm of Challenges: A New American Grand Strategy.