A Matter of Priorities

June 28, 1992

The poor are getting it in the neck again. Or rather in the stomach. The Bush administration places a higher priority on protecting foreign markets for grain -- and, not incidentally, farm prices at home -- than it does on maintaining adequate nutrition for poor people here. One reason: Farmers usually vote. Poor people usually don't.

For years, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has cleared surplus foods such as flour, rice, cheese and butter from its warehouses by distributing it through state agencies to the poor. Canned vegetables and other basic foods were purchased and distributed the same way. But the warehouse shelves are now bare, and $120 million appropriated for purchased food this fiscal year has been spent. So an important source of nutritious food for 2.5 million families has dried up in some parts of the country, though fortunately not Maryland.

If the USDA had run out of surplus food through natural causes, that would be one thing. But the drained warehouses are the direct consequence of Washington's priorities. More than $1 billion worth of grain that might otherwise have been converted into flour for the needy in this country has been sold abroad, thanks to a government subsidy, in order to maintain the U.S. farmer's foothold in foreign markets.

One of those markets is the former Soviet Union, so there is a valid foreign policy consideration involved. There are other ways of aiding nations that deserve our help, as the former Soviet republics do. However, those ways cost money and that adds to the budget deficit. Taking food from other needy mouths doesn't show up on a balance sheet.

No sensible person wants to see again the days when U.S. farmers piled up billions of dollars worth of surplus grain and dairy products. But these days the U.S. reserves barely provide a buffer against a bad crop year or a surge in demand. Bulging granaries in the Midwest depress farm prices -- bad politics in an election year.

Emergency food pantries, generally run by volunteers, are cutting back or even closing in other states. These pantries serve needy people who fall between the cracks of other programs. More than 90,000 families in Maryland benefit from the surplus distribution every three months. According to recent congressional testimony, Maryland can't sustain its program in the face of cutbacks from Washington. That means more families will go hungry when their food stamps and other resources run out before the end of each month. Those foreign markets, in the meantime, will be preserved. It's all a matter of priorities.

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