In a telling truth about his political troubles, President Obama’s most memorable quote is that “you didn’t build that.”
More precisely, President Obama said this (in part) in speech on July 13 this year:
“If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business—you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.”
From the perspective of the produce industry, I’m sure there are many Republican-minded individuals who take great offence at the notion that “If you’ve got a business - you didn’t build that” in reference to the family farm or multi-generation wholesale produce company that was built on the blood, sweat and tears from 12-hour and 16-hour days.
President Obama would speak with so much more authority to members of industry if they could recognize in him a thread of the same kind of life they have experienced, the toil of a small business owner made good. Obama can’t pull that off. With his laid back chill and cool persona, we doubt if he has cared enough about money to run a successful lemonade stand.
At the same time, the more moderate among us may see truth in President Obama’s observations about teachers, roads and bridges. Yes, if not for the help of others we would never be where we are today.
Looking ahead, the fresh produce industry may be faced with the fact that whatever little help the government has given in the past is no guarantee of future support. The seriousness of the budget deficit may call into question many programs that have been given bi-partisan support in the past.
For example, many Republicans and Democrats have long supported food stamps, or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. In March, 46.4 million Americans were receiving food stamp benefits, with an annual cost to the federal budget of more than $86 billion.
Republicans on the Senate Budget Committee have estimated that the total number of food stamp recipients has grown 65% since the end of 2008, while the total number of employed people has fallen 0.7%. Those trends can’t continue forever.
Food stamps are well supported by the food industry as well, with the USDA estimating that 85% of food stamps were spent at supermarkets in 2010. From some discount chains like Save-A-Lot, food stamps account for as much as 40% of sales. Retailers support food stamps in a big way.
But while there will always be those advocates for the hungry who say that federal and state governments should do more to make sure needy families receive food they need, there are more critics than ever questioning the program.
Yale’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity estimates that food stamps are used to purchase of up $2.1 billion a year in sugar-sweetened beverages by SNAP participants. That can’t be good for America, can it?
There are other critics who have attacked fruit and vegetable programs and nutrition education.
Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., published what he called “Wastebook” http://1.usa.gov/QqpGR7 in October this year, 202-page compilation of programs he considers wasteful.
From the report, Coburn questions a fruit and vegetable linked program sponsored by the Department of Health and Human Services that spent $97,000 on the “MyPlate Fruits and Veggies Video Challenge,” a contest for schools to create 30-second videos to support healthy eating.
“As adorable or fun as some of the videos may be, such words are falling on ears that have heard messages about fruits and veggies for years,” he writes.
Among the handful of industry-related projects he skewers in “Wastebook,” he also attacks the Healthy Food Financing Initiative (HFFI) – a multimillion dollar program intended to expand access to healthy foods and fresh produce in some low-income communities.
It is hard to know how much the world will change in the next few months. If Mitt Romney wins the presidency, there will be less funding for industry-supported initiatives in the farm bill, including food stamps, specialty crop block grants and other programs.
On his website, Romney’s campaign says:
“As president, Mitt Romney will ask a simple question about every federal program: is it so important, so critical, that it is worth borrowing money from China to pay for it?”
Now that you put it that way, there are not many programs that pass muster. Austerity and bare-bone spending is not an answer by itself, true.
But it may be an unavoidable reality given our country’s crushing debt. Americans who want change can only hope Romney can create a new era of prosperity by delivering policies that allow Americans to build their businesses. It may be time to let Mitt run the lemonade stand.