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The Boston Globe

Food & dining

G Force

How the farm bill affects consumers

Lou Manna

WHO: Marion Nestle

WHAT: On Sunday, the author and New York University professor served on the Let’s Talk About the Farm Bill panel at the Museum of Science, part of their Let’s Talk About Food events. The Farm Bill is up for re-authorization this year. Nestle, the Paulette Goddard Professor at NYU in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health and a professor of sociology, taught a graduate course last semester on the bill. Joining Nestle on the panel was Representative Chellie Pingree of Maine, a member of the Agriculture Committee, who recently introduced the Local Farms, Food, and Jobs Act for inclusion in the new bill.

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Q. How does the farm bill impact consumers?

A. The farm bill determines what the American food system is about, so that on the most personal level it’s responsible for having a great deal to do with how much food costs, what kind of foods get produced, what kind of foods are available, which kinds of foods are promoted and which kinds not, and whether we have large farmers or small farmers or an agricultural system that promotes a healthy population and climate or one that promotes the health of very large corporations.

Q. There have been doubts as to whether the 2012 bill will pass this year. As it’s being revised, what changes would you like to see made to the 2008 bill?

A. I’d like to bring agricultural policy in line with health policy. Health policy tells us that we ought to be making fruits and vegetables inexpensive and relatively easy for Americans to get at a reasonable cost. Instead, what has happened over the years is the relative cost of fruits and vegetables has increased quite a lot and the relative cost of processed foods has gone down. Right now, the farmers who get support payments are forbidden from growing fruits and vegetables. That has to change so that there’s more incentive to grow fruits and vegetables.

Q. What should people understand about the farm bill?

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A. From my experience teaching this and talking about it, no one has any idea what the farm bill is about. It’s too complicated for any mind to grasp. We spent a whole semester reading about it and I was kind of stunned at the end at the enormity and complexity of it. And that makes me feel that no legislator can possibly understand what it’s about. And so everybody picks on some little piece of it and thinks that the farm bill is about that little piece. It’s not. The main thing that everybody needs to understand is the huge elephant in the farm bill is food stamps - SNAP [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program]. It’s the biggest program in the farm bill, by far, eight times bigger than everything else put together. And it so overpowers everything else that if you look at it from a financial standpoint, you’re talking about nothing in comparison to that, $72 billion last year.

Q. Is there any way to decrease the dependency on food stamps?

A. Get those people jobs. But the food industry loves food stamps. Some astonishing fraction of food stamp money is spent at Walmart - it’s at least a quarter of food stamp money. Walmart is a big supporter of food stamps. Processed food companies and soda companies are big supporters of food stamps. One statistic I would like to know is, what percentage of Walmart employees are on food stamps? I would really like to know that because that means that the government is subsidizing Walmart.

Q. How do you recommend becoming more familiar with the farm bill?

A. I would advise just taking a look at the bill - it’s online - and take a look at the table of contents. It’s breathtaking, just by itself. The scope of the things that are covered, it’s not just farm support. It’s energy policy, forestry, minority farmers, tax policies, insurance. It’s important for the public to understand what it’s about and to understand how extraordinarily political it is. And if people want to do something about the farm bill, they have to get involved in the politics, ugly as they are.

Interview was condensed and edited. Glenn Yoder can be reached at gyoder@globe.com.

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