Happy Thanksgiving! How much did your tax dollars underwrite the feast?


Nearly 400 years ago, at the very first Thanksgiving in the Plymouth Colony, Native Americans and pilgrims dined together on a meal of deer, corn, shellfish, and roasted meat. There was no such thing as crop insurance, sugar price supports, dairy subsidies, conservation easements, food stamps, or any other feature of the massive farm bill governing the nation's food policy, which expired on September 30.

Of course there was no such thing as the U.S. Congress either, which stalled on the farm bill last summer. In this country, food is a political issue, and where there is politics, there is money. Lots of it. This year alone, agribusiness has reported spending $70.7 million so far this year on campaign contributions, three-quarters of that amount going to the GOP. Industry lobbying accounts for a massive $95.4 million in reported expenditures; the leading lobbying spenders for agricultural services are Monsanto, the American Farm Bureau, CropLife America, Deere & Company, and Archers Daniel Midland. Some farm-state lawmakers are arguing that the lame duck Congress should get the job done on the farm bill; pundits are arguing this is unlikely with the fiscal cliff looming.

As we sit down to our festive repasts, let's consider the many ways that money and politics have influenced our meal.

Food stamps. Hit hard by the 2008 financial collapse, more Americans are using food stamps to help buy the basics this Thanksgiving than ever before. Average participation has increased 70 percent since 2007, with costs reaching $72 billion, according the Congressional Budget Office (CBO),  and is a major stalling point in the farm bill legislation. The Senate version, which passed last summer, cuts the program by $4 billion over 10 years, while the House version, which has not yet seen a floor vote, cuts $16 billion over the same time period, with some GOP members complaining that amount is still too low. With powerful lobbies like the defense industry rallying against the automatic budget cuts that will take effect if Congress doesn't agree on other spending reductions, food stamps are a juicy target.

Turkey. The National Turkey Federation, as a member of the newly formed Coalition to Promote U.S. Agricultural Exports, urged Congressional leaders earlier this month to pass the farm bill with strong export programs. "With the expiration of the 2008 Farm Bill on September 30, FAS [Foreign Agricultural Service] currently has no authority to run market promotion and development programs…" reads the letter, which was signed by dozens of powerful agriculture trade groups. The Federation also is part of another coalition pushing Congress to quickly normalize trade relations with Russia, pointing to $300 million in annual poultry exports to that country.

Stuffing. Whether you put bread or cornmeal in your stuffing, you can bet there's a faction of farmers behind that ingredient lobbying hard, and that the federal crop insurance program is a big issue. Both the House and the Senate reform but also expand this program. Its cost is expected to rise to $15 billion this year for taxpayers in the face of this year's drought. "Federal crop insurance provides an effective risk management tool to farmers and ranchers when they are facing losses behond their control," wrote a group of growers trade associations last spring, including the American Farm Bureau, the American Soybean Association, and the National Corn Growers Association. Meanwhile, the Environmental Working Group, along with conservative group such as the Heritage Foundation and the budget watchdog Taxpayers for Common Sense criticize the program a subsidy that benefits wealthy growers at taxpayer expense. Also decried is the secrecy built into the program: Congress in 2000 prohibited the release of information of who benefits from crop insurance, writes the Heritage Foundation. Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., has introduced legislation to require release of crop insurance beneficiaries.

Cranberry sauce. Like many an agricultural group, cranberries have their own caucus. This one, however, is new, formed in June by Massachussetts Sens. John Kerry, a Democrat, and Scott Brown, Kerry's soon-to-be former Republican colleague. "Senator Kerry has been a long-time supporter of the Massachusetts cranberry industry," notes the press release from Kerry's office. "Over the last 12 years, he has worked to secure millions of dollars in funding for important cranberry projects and research in an effort to keep Massachusetts on top as an industry leader." Cranberry growers such as Ocean Spray are on the defensive as the U.S. Department of Agriculture considers standards for sugary drinks in public schools; executives say adding sugar to the juice is necessary because of the fruit is naturally tart. The company also lobbies on issues ranging from sugar taxes to pesticides.

Pumpkin pie. Dairy price support programs expired along with the farm bill in September, leaving dairy farmers in a bind. The Dairy Famers of America has called on Congress to pass the Farm bill quickly and bring "some relief to farmers suffering through weather-related disasters and unfavorable market conditions." Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., spoke for his state's dairy industry on the Senate floor on November 14, calling for passage of the bill. Meanwhile, a coalition of sugar users–the candy and beverage industries among them–pushes yet again for reform of the sugar industry, which has beat back such attacks on sugar support programs for years. Most recently, the Senate voted during the farm bill debate to table an amendment by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., to eliminate the program.

(Photo credit: YinYang via iStockphoto.com)