Order Code RS20235
Updated February 23, 2007
Farm and Food Support Under USDA’s
Section 32 Program
Geoffrey S. Becker
Specialist in Agricultural Policy
Resources, Science, and Industry Division
“Section 32” is a permanent appropriation that since 1935 has earmarked the
equivalent of 30% of annual customs receipts to support the farm sector through a
variety of activities. Today, most of this annual appropriation (now approximately $7
billion) is transferred to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) account that funds
child nutrition programs. The Secretary of Agriculture also uses Section 32 funds to
purchase non-price-supported commodities like meats, poultry, fruits, vegetables, and
fish, which are diverted to school lunch and other domestic food programs; to pay for
special farm disaster relief; and for other purposes. Among other issues is how much
flexibility the Secretary should have in deciding Section 32 spending priorities. This
report will be updated.
What Is Section 32?
Section 32 of the act of August 24, 1935 (P.L. 74-320 as amended; 7 U.S.C. 612c)
authorizes a permanent appropriation equal to 30% of annual U.S. customs receipts. The
money was first available to assist Depression-era producers of non-price-supported
commodities. Section 32 funds are to be used for (1) encouraging the export of farm
products through producer payments or other means; (2) encouraging the domestic
consumption of farm products by diverting surpluses from normal channels or increasing
their use by low-income groups; and (3) reestablishing farmers’ purchasing power. The
Secretary of Agriculture has considerable discretion in deciding how to achieve these
broad objectives. Unused amounts of up to $500 million a year may be carried into the
next fiscal year.
Uses of Section 32 Funds
USDA’s best-known use of Section 32 funds has been direct purchases of non-pricesupported commodities, such as meat, poultry, fruits, vegetables, and fish. This activity
began shortly after passage of the 1935 law and continues today. The department seeks
outlets for these purchases that do not disrupt private markets. Early in the program,
USDA began donating its purchases to low-income families and schools, on the premise
that the donations would supplement, not displace, normal food purchases by these
recipients. Distribution of Section 32 commodities is credited with stimulating growth
of the national school lunch program.
Today, school lunch and other domestic nutrition programs benefit in two ways from
Section 32 funds. First, much of the Section 32 permanent appropriation now simply is
transferred into USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) child nutrition account, where
it is supplemented by a separate direct appropriation provided through the annual USDA
appropriation law. The commingled funds are then used to provide cash and commodity
subsidies to schools and other eligible program sponsors for meals served to children.
Second, a smaller — but still significant — amount of Section 32 money is used to
purchase non-price-supported commodities directly and provide them to schools and other
feeding sites. These purchases are made by USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service
(AMS). Some of these commodities ($550 million worth in FY2006) are mandated;
Sections 6, 13, and 14 of the Richard B. Russell National School Lunch Act (P.L. 79-396)
“entitle” schools and other child nutrition program sponsors to commodities worth
specific dollar amounts. Others are “bonus” commodities, which schools and other
domestic food programs receive after AMS makes emergency commodity purchases to
relieve farm surpluses that occur throughout the year (bonus purchases were valued at $81
million in FY2006). Section 32 is also used to fund other programs (see the next section).
Fiscal Year 2006 Spending
An accounting of a recently completed fiscal year (FY2006) illustrates how money
is collected and spent.1 The program’s permanent appropriation was $6.482 billion,
representing 30% of prior calendar-year customs receipts. This figure was reduced by:
— $38 million, a rescission mandated by Congress for budgetary savings.
— $5.188 billion, transferred to the child nutrition program cash account, to help
pay for federal child nutrition programs budgeted at about $12.66 billion in FY2006.
(The difference, $7.47 billion, is provided directly through the annual, i.e., FY2006,
— $79 million (30% of customs revenue from fish product imports), transferred to
the Commerce Department for fisheries activities.
This left $1.177 billion, to which was added $286 million in unobligated FY2005
money that was carried into FY2006, for a total of $1.463 billion. From this:
$465 million was designated for planned AMS commodity purchases to
partially fill the commodity assistance entitlement set by the school lunch
act. (This law mandates USDA commodity support for each meal served
— in FY2006, 17.5 cents for a total of $946 million in child nutrition
commodity entitlements. To buy these commodities, $486 million
Primary sources: USDA Budget Explanatory Notes for Committee on Appropriations, FY2007
and FY2008; and unpublished November 2006 data from the AMS budget office.
provided from USDA’s FY2006 child nutrition appropriation was added
to the $465 million set aside from Section 32 funds.)
$85 million in additional commodities were purchased to fulfill another
school lunch act requirement that at least 12% of assistance be provided
to schools in the form of commodities.
$700 million was made available by USDA in direct payments mainly to
compensate Florida crop producers for hurricane and disease losses, and
some for livestock drought relief.
$2 million went for disaster relief foods (e.g., for Hurricane Katrina).
$44 million was used for AMS administrative expenses for direct food
purchasing (including the cost of setting up a new Web-based supply
management system), and for oversight of federal marketing orders.
$81 million was used for “emergency removals” of surplus commodities
during the course of the fiscal year ($62 million for fruits and vegetables;
$2 million for meats and $16 million for poultry).2
Subtracting the above spending, and making an upward bookkeeping adjustment to
account for “deobligations” of prior year obligations, AMS estimated that it had a
“carryout” of $147 million at the end of the year, which was added to available funding
for the following fiscal year (FY2007).
Overview. Section 32 pays for direct purchases of commodities that are not
covered by agricultural price support through USDA’s Commodity Credit Corporation
(CCC). A portion of these are planned (e.g., in FY2006, the $465 million in purchases to
help satisfy Section 6(e) mandated assistance under the school lunch act). Others are
unplanned purchases are of “surplus” commodities, using the contingency fund ($81
million in FY2006). All Section 32 purchases differ from CCC price support in that
Section 32 does not specify which commodities must be assisted, at what levels, or how,
leaving such decisions to the Secretary of Agriculture.
In planning the required commodity purchases, USDA agencies consult with major
commodity organizations and devise, by early spring, a tentative purchase plan for the
next school year (purchases may begin in May). The plan is based on prior year
purchases, likely school needs, expectations of available funds, and any anticipated
surplus or other market conditions in the coming year, among other things. AMS issues
the bid specifications for purchasing the products, generally in processed form, for
delivery to state drop-off points. The Kansas City office of USDA’s Farm Service
Agency administers the purchase contracts and pays the vendors.
Contingency Fund Purchases. Over the course of the year, USDA taps the
contingency reserve for so-called emergency surplus removals, which are then distributed
as “bonuses” to domestic food assistance programs. The department may learn about
these needs through its own commodity experts or be informed of surplus or other
problems by outside farm and industry organizations.
As noted earlier, such emergency purchases are provided as a “bonus” to schools (over and
above their “entitled” amounts) and to other designated domestic food assistance programs.
Table 1. Section 32 Contingency Fund (Bonus) Purchases,
by Commodity, FY1995-FY2006
Source: USDA and House Appropriations Committee, various hearing reports. Each category represents
commodities and/or any foods processed from them purchased by AMS. Purchases for each category are
cumulative for the 12-year period covered; part-year (not total) FY2006 data was incorporated into total.
As Table 1 indicates, some commodities are bought more frequently than others.
AMS made contingency purchases of salmon in 11 out of the 12 years examined, at a total
cost of nearly $112 million. Other relatively frequent purchases were of peaches, apricots,
cherries, walnuts, beef, potatoes, apples, asparagus, figs, pears, and pork.
Were these contingency purchases, particularly of commodities bought in multiple
years, justified? AMS maintains that each of its purchase decisions is based upon an
analysis of market conditions at the time, and that industry requests to buy products are
rejected if conditions do not justify them. Some have questioned the decision-making
process. In a 2005 assessment, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) concluded
that Section 32 had not adequately demonstrated results due to, among other things,
unclear purposes, no basic criteria for surplus commodity purchases, and lack of
performance measures.3 What OMB and other critics view as flaws, program supporters
view as flexibility to quickly and efficiently address agricultural problems.
Table 2. Total Annual Contingency Purchases
(FY1995-FY2006, in millions)
2000 $191.95 2004
Donations of Contingency Purchases. Besides schools and child care centers,
recipients include soup kitchens, food banks, and others serving the needy. The annual
total of contingency purchases — and thus the foods provided to these outlets — has
varied. Recent annual totals have varied from $56 million in FY1996 to more than $226
million in FY2004; the total declined steeply from FY2004 to FY2006 (Table 2). The
drop raises concern among many domestic food providers. They concede that the food
they have received through this Section 32 activity is a “bonus” and not an “entitlement,”
but say they had come to rely on the higher levels to help meet client demand.
Section 32 and Specialty Crops
The 2002 farm bill (P.L. 107-171, §10603) requires that not less than $200 million
annually in Section 32 funds be used to buy fruits, vegetables, and other specialty crops,
$50 million of it for fruits and vegetables for schools through the Defense Department
Fresh Program. There has been debate over whether the $200 million is “new” money.
USDA has maintained that it already spends more than this level each year, when both
mandatory and contingency (bonus) purchases are counted. In fact, Section 32 specialty
crop purchases have averaged $308 million over the last seven fiscal years (FY2000FY2006), according to USDA purchase data examined by CRS.
Some lawmakers and lobbyists for the fruit and vegetable industry contend that the
2002 farm bill conference report directs that the $200 million should be in additional
purchases. Senate reports accompanying annual USDA appropriations have reminded
USDA of these farm bill instructions, but USDA officials argue that these instructions are
not binding because they are in report language and not in the law itself.
In early 2007, the Administration announced its recommendations for a 2007 farm
bill. One of these recommendations is to spend an additional $2.75 billion of Section 32
funds, spread over 10 years, to purchase more fruits and vegetables for the domestic
nutrition programs, with the aim of increasing recipients’ consumption of these products.
This would bring total fruit and vegetable purchases (mandated and bonus combined) to
approximately $500 million or more per year — although the exact level would depend
upon how USDA calculates current “average” purchases.
However, Administration officials have indicated that these new purchases would
not increase Section 32 spending beyond current “baseline” projections, and that no new
This assessment can be accessed at [http://www.whitehouse.gov/omb/expectmore/].
legislation would be needed. Thus, it appears that the Administration intends to exercise
its existing statutory authority to make these purchases. In other words, these proposed
fruit and vegetable increases would be at the Administration’s discretion, not required by
a change in the law. However, it is unclear how the Administration could avoid “new
spending” unless it diverts some current Section 32 spending from other commodity
purchases (e.g., of meat, poultry, fish) or from other potential Section 32 uses, such as
future disaster assistance (see “Fiscal Year 2006 Spending,” above).
In 2002 and again in 2004, the Bush Administration decided to use Section 32 to pay
for special disaster initiatives. On September 19, 2002, USDA announced a “Livestock
Compensation Program” to cover 2001 and 2002 drought losses by cattle, lamb, and
buffalo producers in 37 states. From late FY2002 through FY2003, total Section 32
monies for this program reached just over $1 billion, a level that appeared to be
unprecedented under Section 32, according to long-time observers. Some other producer
groups and domestic food program interests had contended at the time that diverting so
much money to these payments threatened the solvency of the contingency fund needed
to make the many bonus purchases throughout the year for fruit, vegetable, poultry, pork,
and other commodity groups suffering surpluses and/or low prices. Also, commodity
recipients, especially food banks, pointed out that they rely heavily on Section 32 bonus
foods (even though such foods are not entitlements) to help supplement their resources.
To help pay for the disaster program and still cover “normal” contingency purchases,
officials made several adjustments in various USDA spending accounts for FY2003.
Strains on the Section 32 budget also were relieved somewhat when Congress approved
a provision in the omnibus FY2003 appropriation (H.J.Res. 2) transferring $250 million
from the CCC account to replenish the Section 32 account to carry out emergency surplus
removals. The Administration again turned to Section 32 in late 2004 (i.e., early
FY2005), taking $650 million from the account to make disaster payments to producers
of fruits, vegetables, and nursery crops in Florida to compensate them for hurricane and/or
disease losses. In a disaster assistance package included within the FY2005 Military
Construction Appropriations Act (P.L. 108-324), Congress had transferred $90 million
from the CCC account to the Section 32 account to cover some of this spending.
Other Section 32 Uses
USDA also uses its broad discretionary authority to spend Section 32 money on other
activities. For example, in 1999 it used $54 million to make direct payments to hog
producers affected by low market prices. Export subsidies and related activities also have
been supported in the past. Section 32 funded a pilot food stamp program in the early
1960s, paid for production and diversion payments to other producers in past years, and
supported several supplemental feeding programs.
Congress itself periodically designates other uses. For example, it appropriated $75
million for Section 32 in a 1983 jobs law (P.L. 98-8), to purchase and distribute foods to
needy families in high unemployment areas. Congress earmarked $10 million for the
special purchase of sunflower oil in FY1988, and $50 million for a similar program in
FY1994. An emergency FY1999 appropriation (P.L. 106-31) included an extra $145
million for Section 32 for hog producer payments during a period of extremely low prices.