WASHINGTON (AP) – The House Agriculture Committee approved budget cuts Friday that would take food stamps away from an estimated 300,000 people and could cut off school lunches and breakfasts for 40,000 children.

The action came as the government reported that the number of people who are hungry because they can’t afford to buy enough food rose to 38.2 million in 2004, an increase of 7 million in five years. The number represents nearly 12 percent of U.S. households.

“If there are cuts to be made, why should we make them on food stamps?” said Rep. David Scott, D-Ga. “This is the meanest cut of all.”

The cuts, approved by the Republican-controlled committee on a party-line vote, are part of an effort by the House GOP to curb federal spending by $50 billion. The food and agriculture cuts would reduce spending by $3.7 billion, including $844 million on nutrition, $760 million on conservation and $212 million on payments to farmers.

“The fact is, our country is going broke,” said Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio. “We’re spending money we don’t have and passing it onto our kids, and at some point, somebody’s got to say, “Enough’s enough.”‘

The $574 million reduction in food stamp spending would affect families who receive food stamps because they receive other non-cash government assistance. The change is estimated to shut up to 300,000 people out of the program.

The restriction also could take free meals away from an estimated 40,000 school children, because children in many states are automatically eligible for school meals when they get food stamps, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

The White House proposed the restriction earlier this year.

The bill would also raise the waiting period for food stamps for legal immigrants from five to seven years.

Senate GOP leaders are seeking to curb spending by $39 billion, and have been more reluctant to cut government benefit programs. The Senate Agriculture Committee spared food stamps in approving a similar budget bill last week and voted for greater reductions in farm payments and conservation.

The House committee voted to shave $212 million from direct payments to farmers, a 1 percent reduction over the next four years. Cuts to commodity programs totaled $1 billion and include repeal of a federal cotton subsidy to comply with a World Trade Organization ruling against the program.

In a separate action Friday, the House voted 318-63 to approve the final version of a $100 billion spending bill for food and farm programs for the budget year that began Oct. 1. The Senate must approve the measure before it can go to President Bush for his signature.

The bill delays until 2008 a meat labeling law that was to have gone into effect last year. Pressure from meatpackers and supermarkets has blocked the labels, which would tell shoppers what country their meat comes from.

The measure also overrides a court ruling on whether products with the round, green “USDA Organic” seal can contain small amounts of non-organic ingredients. An appeals court decided earlier this year that non-organic substances – things like vitamins or baking powder – are not allowed in food bearing the seal.

But more than 200 companies and trade groups said they can’t make organic yogurt and many other products without the ingredients in question, and congressional negotiators agreed. An industry group, the Organic Trade Association, said the ruling could cost manufacturers $758 million annually. Organic food has grown rapidly, from a $1 billion industry in 1990 to an estimated $14.5 billion this year.

On the Net:

Congress: http://thomas.loc.gov

Agriculture Department: http://www.usda.gov

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