Families, Farmers, and the Mexican Frontera

The Irrationality of American Food Policy About twice every decade, Congress enacts a gargantuan piece of agricultural legislation. The 2008 Farm Bill1 weighed in at 1,769 pages, with roughly half the word count of the King James Bible or three-fourths the length of the behemoth Patient Protection and Affordable Health Care Act of 2010.2 Although varying with each re-enactment, the Farm Bill typically includes loans, subsidies, price guarantees, and crop insurance for agricultural producers; nutrition programs and food stamps for eligible consumers; plus a host of regulations aimed at conserving wetlands and forests, developing rural communities, and funding agricultural research. This omnibus legislation, extended further by the National School Lunch Program and international trade agreements, holds powerful sway over which agricultural goods are produced, to whom they are sold, and at what costs—including far-reaching social costs that stretch across the Mexican border and permeate the lives of struggling families both within and beyond the United States. The federal government has a long history of supporting agriculture. The Homestead Act of 1862 sold off federal lands at a nominal fee, provided that the participating families agreed to farm for at least five years. In the 1930s, the Agricultural Adjustment Administration offered to save the family farm by taking much of the grain supply off the market in order to drive up prices, while also building a bureaucracy for distributing meat and grain in times of need. As for recent decades, a matrix of direct subsidies, counter-cyclical payments, loans, and purchases ostensibly have kept the agricultural economy on an even keel, but critics cry “corruption” as they follow the money trail. Not everyone benefits equally, and some suffer considerable harm. Among those hit hardest, Mexican immigrants—both legal and not—struggle to achieve financial stability without sacrificing family integrity. Meanwhile
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