Obama has many campaign promises to keep and problems to fix

WASHINGTON -- On the campaign trail, President-elect Barack Obama said his administration would help small family farms, end childhood hunger and upgrade roads and bridges in rural areas.

WASHINGTON -- On the campaign trail, President-elect Barack Obama said his administration would help small family farms, end childhood hunger and upgrade roads and bridges in rural areas.

His commitment to the rural and impoverished parts of America helped secure critical victories for him in Midwestern Corn Belt states, such as Iowa and Minnesota, and has heightened expectations for the U.S. Department of Agriculture as Obama prepares to appoint an agriculture secretary to oversee wide-ranging efforts.

During cash-strapped times, the challenges of mounting new initiatives are daunting. And USDA still is battling long-running problems: subsidy programs that give huge sums to ineligible millionaire farmers; food inspections that put Americans at risk for food-borne illnesses; and nutrition programs that fail to identify more than 30 percent of Americans who live in poverty and are at risk of hunger every month.

"Things are not working like they should. When things go wrong, it's difficult if not impossible sometimes to determine who should take responsibility," says Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., chairman of the House Agriculture Committee. "The mission of the department needs to be examined; there needs to be some restructuring."

Good foundation


Officials in the Bush administration defended the department's record over the past eight years, saying that despite the need for continued reforms, the agency has successfully responded to a number of crises and has kept the agricultural industry healthy, its core mission.

"We have established a very good foundation. The country produces what is essentially a positive in our balance of trade with agriculture," says USDA press secretary Keith Williams. "In a country where we import more than we send out, agriculture continues to be a bright spot."

Many of the problems that Obama wishes to tackle have been controversial for several decades.

Improper payment of crop subsidies -- intended to help struggling family farmers -- is a prime example.

A redent report by the Government Accountability Office asserted that the USDA continued to give federal subsidies to ineligible, wealthy farmers despite a series of congressional reforms. Between 2003 and 2006, more than 2,700 farmers who were earning more than the cutoff of $2.5 million annually continued to receive subsidies. Unwarranted payments totaled $49 million.

"Without better oversight to ensure that farm program funds are spent as economically, efficiently and effectively as possible, USDA had little assurance that these funds benefit the agriculture sector as intended," the report says.

Obama says the findings represent "a prime example of the kind of waste I intend to end as president."

However, the response from some other Democrats shows how difficult it will be to reign in subsidies, even when the money goes to farmers making millions.


"You need to look at the risk that is involved with crops. One year you might make $2.5 million, but another year you can lose $2.5 million -- you don't get credit for that," Peterson says. "If you reduce subsidies, the cost of food will go up."

The most urgent change needed for the Obama USDA, according to the GAO and the Congressional Research Service, is improving the department's food safety inspections. At present, USDA and 14 other departments and agencies administer a patchwork of food safety laws that often overlap and do not always make public safety the first priority.

Another Obama campaign pledge -- ending childhood hunger by 2015 -- also presents immediate challenges. The nation's economic crisis has pushed the number of families relying on food stamps to 30 million, an unprecedented high expected to climb as unemployment rates continue to rise.

Bush officials in the USDA say the demands are staggering.

Already, nutrition programs administered by the department cost $63 billion annually, representing two-thirds of the USDA's budget. One in five Americans are "touched" by the programs, meaning they either rely on one of them for food or have an immediate family member who does. Still, USDA officials say that only 63 percent of those who qualify for the programs actually have been identified and enrolled.

Outreach efforts have intensified in the public and private sectors, and the numbers are expected to rise.

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