WASHINGTON (AP) — Dairy farmers suffering from low milk prices would benefit from $350 million in emergency funding approved by the Senate on Thursday as it cleared a $121 billion agriculture spending bill for President Barack Obama's signature.
The bill also delivers a record $58.2 billion for the food stamp program, which when combined with benefit increases passed under Obama's stimulus bill earlier in the year would mean a 19 percent increase in food stamp spending above current levels.
The measure passed by 76-22 vote. Obama is expected to sign it into law soon.
Lawmakers from dairy-producing states succeeded in getting $350 million in aid for milk farmers struggling to cope with falling market prices. That includes $60 million to cover the federal purchase of surplus cheese and other dairy products. The purchased products would go to food banks and other nutrition programs. The remaining $290 million is expected to go out in direct payments to farmers.
The dairy aid proposal was welcomed by lawmakers from the Midwest and Northeast where dairy operations are smaller, but was viewed skeptically by lawmakers from California, New Mexico and Idaho, home to much larger dairy farms.
Lawmakers from those states were worried that $290 million in direct payments would be delivered along the lines of an existing program that caps payments in a way that disproportionately benefits farms of about 200 cows or less.
Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., demanded and received a meeting with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on Wednesday, and said afterward that she was encouraged that the money would be delivered equitably, reflecting the larger herds in the west.
And on Thursday, a bipartisan House-Senate group of lawmakers from large dairy production states urged Vilsack to make sure payments are distributed on a "more equitable basis" than the existing direct payment system, the Milk Income Loss Contracts program.
The additional food stamp funding, along with rising costs for other food and nutrition programs, reflects the growing number of people who need help getting by in tough economic times.
Similarly, the federal nutrition program for women, infants and children receives $7.3 billion, up $400 million from 2009 nonemergency levels. Aid to school and child care nutrition programs goes up $1.9 billion to $16.9 billion.
As of July about 36 million people received food stamps under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, about half of them children. That's up some 6 million from 2008. The stimulus package passed in February also directed $20 billion over five years to the food stamp program.
The average monthly benefit for a family of four is $226. The maximum for a family of four is $668.
The WIC supplemental feeding program reaches some 9.2 million people, including almost half of all children born in the United States, according to the Agriculture Department.
The legislation contains $23.3 billion for programs under Congress' immediate control, such as the Food and Drug Administration, agriculture research, food safety, rural housing assistance and conservation programs. The other 80 percent, almost $100 billion, is for benefit programs such as food stamps and school nutrition.
The bill, which covers federal programs for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1, also lifts a ban imposed earlier this year on poultry imports from China, conditioned on inspectors certifying that the products meet U.S. safety standards.
The agriculture measure is only the second of 12 annual spending bills for fiscal year 2010 that Congress has cleared for Obama. The budget year began Oct. 1.
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.