A new USDA report says one in seven U.S. families face an emptier dinner table. This is not a new trend with some seven million homes added to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP – formerly food stamps) roles since 2007.

Following an August recess, and facing a near-$15 trillion federal debt, Congress has returned to D.C., leaving behind increasingly jobless, disgusted and scornful constituencies. On Thursday, the 12-member “super committee” – cobbled together earlier this summer following the debt ceiling brinksmanship – will meet for the first time. By Nov. 23, the 12 must come up with $1.5 trillion in budget cuts, or savings, over the next decade.  

So, in this age of austerity and economic malaise, with 19 million U.S. households now signed up for SNAP -- never mind the other 14 nutrition programs overseen by the USDA – and entering an election year, will Congress really cut food programs? That’s just one of many questions facing agriculture interests on Capitol Hill as the next farm bill waits in the wings.

The House, pushed by hard-line Republicans seeking to solidify budget-cutting bona fides, weighed in earlier this year with a budget that, among other controversial moves, sliced 10 percent of the $6 billion WIC (Women Infants and Children) budget. Would the Democrat-controlled Senate lean the same way?

On Wednesday, faced with alarming news like the USDA nutrition program report, the Senate Appropriations Committee passed three bills. Now out of committee and headed to the full Senate are: the Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Appropriations Bill (HR.2112), the Energy and Water Development Appropriations Bill (HR.2354), and the Homeland Security Appropriations Bill (HR.2017). 

Cochran explains

For a Mid-South perspective, Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran, ranking member of the committee, said “These three bills are important for our nation, and each bill has components that are particularly vital to the state of Mississippi…

“The emergency disaster response appropriations in these bills are provided in response to the floods, tornadoes and storms that have caused such widespread destruction in recent months. These funds are provided pursuant to the disaster response mechanism included in the Budget Control Act. These amounts may require change as floodwaters recede and repair and response estimates are refined, but it is important that the committee act now with the information currently available.

“The FEMA Disaster Relief Fund is depleted, and the agency is rationing funding for authorized disaster response measures. The Corp of Engineers needs funding to repair and rebuild promptly the very flood control structures that helped prevent a far more costly disaster during this year’s historic Mississippi and Missouri River floods. I am committed … to see that these and other justifiable emergency response requirements are addressed in a timely manner, consistent with the requirements of the Budget Control Act. Doing so will not diminish our efforts to find efficiencies and savings in other government programs”

A release from Cochran’s office says the agriculture bill“is a $136.8 billion measure that includes more than $116.8 billion for mandatory funding that is primarily linked to increases in the use of (SNAP). SNAP participation in FY2012 is expected to increase to 47.1 million over the estimated 45 million now receiving this assistance.”

Under the $31.6 billion energy and water development bill, $4.86 billion is allocated to the Army Corps of Engineers. The release says those billions include “$250 million for projects on for Mississippi River and Tributaries Project, $40 million over the budget request.  In addition, the bill includes $1.04 billion in emergency disaster response funds.” Also, $58 million is provided to the Appalachian Regional Commission and $9.9 million for the Delta Regional Authority.

According to Cochran’s staff, a further breakdown of the agriculture funding proposed by the committee will hold interest for agriculture researchers and U.S. aquaculture.

  • Disaster Funding. $266 million for the Emergency Conservation Program ($78 million), Emergency Watershed Program ($139 million), and Emergency Forest Restoration Program ($49 million). 
  • Agriculture Research Service (ARS) and National Institute of Food & Agriculture Research Programs. While these accounts are reduced in general by 2 percent below FY2011 levels, the formula funding for land grant universities, historically black universities and 1994 institutions are maintained at FY2011 levels.
  •  ARS Extramural Research Programs. The committee rejected the White House proposal to eliminate ARS extramural research programs, instead providing funding for research carried out at the University of Mississippi, Mississippi State University, Alcorn State University and the University of Southern Mississippi.
  • Food Safety and Inspection Service.  $1 billion, the same as the FY2011 level. The bill includes a provision directing the agency to continue implementation of the catfish inspection rule.
  • Rural Development. Within USDA Rural Development, $2.9 million is provided for the Delta Regional Authority and $3 million is provided for a competitive grant program for the Delta Health Alliance.