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Budget plan cuts food aid, stewardship programs


Food pantry items are seen at the Food Bank For New York City Community Kitchen & Food Pantry of West Harlem in New York December 21, 2010. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton
Food pantry items are seen at the Food Bank For New York City Community Kitchen & Food Pantry of West Harlem in New York December 21, 2010. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

By Charles Abbott

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Programs that help poor mothers buy food and that share the cost of land stewardship would be cut under government-wide reductions unveiled on Tuesday.

The cuts are part of an agreement that averted a government shutdown. Lawmakers were to vote on the $28 billion package this week.

According to the House Appropriations Committee, cuts totaling $2.6 billion would be made in Agriculture Department funds for this fiscal year, ending on September 30. The USDA was expected to spend $108 billion this year, the bulk of it on public nutrition programs, such as food stamps and school lunches.

With the year half-over, "it becomes twice as hard" to make the cuts, said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. He will meet with program directors later Tuesday to discuss how to implement the cuts.

A $504 million cut in the so-called the WIC -- Women, Infants and Children -- program can be met by eliminating reserve funds, Vilsack told a meeting of the North American Agricultural Journalists.

WIC provides additional food to low-income pregnant women, new mothers and their children. The program was estimated to serve 9.3 million people this year at a cost of $7.2 billion.

Cuts in stewardship spending included $119 million from the Wetlands Reserve, $80 million from the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and $39 million from the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP).

The Wetland Reserve program pays landowners to preserve wetlands, EQIP shares the cost of preventing runoff from fields and feedlots, and CSP is the USDA's first "green" payment program.

The Wetlands Reserve initially was expected to spend $726 million this year, EQIP $1.2 billion and CSP $600 million.

Other large cuts were:

-- $433 million from an agriculture credit insurance fund run by the Farm Service Agency.

-- $350 million in dairy subsidies.

-- $194 million from foreign food assistance and related programs, including food aid donations and a global school meals program. The programs were forecast for $1.9 billion this year.

-- $134 million from the newly inaugurated Biomass Crop Assistance Program (BCAP) that encourages farmers to experiment with next-generation crops, such as switchgrass, for making biofuels. The USDA had estimated BCAP outlays at $199 million.

-- $126 million from the National Institute for Food and Agriculture, a research agency.

-- $118 million from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, which oversees land, water and wildlife stewardship.

-- $265 million from rural economic development programs.

(Reporting by Charles Abbott; editing by Jeffrey Benkoe)

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