Jekyll island, Georgia -- Down here, at a conference of food activists, no one?s sure if they should be licking their wounds or whooping it up after a victory.
The occasion of this ambivalence is a U.S. farm bill worth about $100 billion that has gone through phase 1 and is heading to an uncertain future before the Senate and White House.
The mixed feelings have to do with one aspect of the bill - food stamps, which as much as medicare or gun laws distinguish U.S. from Canadian political culture.
The activists, here for a session organized by the Community Food Security Coalition (CFSC), are my guides on a tour of the U.S. policy and practice of food stamps, whose history explains a lot about how politics here gets done.
In a year when there is huge outrage about subsidies to crops that are bad for the environment, food activists went all out to reform the bill. They scored few new gains, however, aside from bagging a billion to support fruits and vegetables in schools, the first time money has gone to the foundation of healthy diets.
But they aren't totally depressed. That's because along with those nasty multi-billion-dollar farm subsidies for cotton and corn, the bill also includes funding for food stamps that 27 million poor people use to buy meals.
Don't misunderstand - it's not that activists think food stamps make compelling social policy. It's just that in the context of the dominant U.S. politics, they recognize that this is the only immediate way bellies will be filled.
Food stamps must have seemed like a brilliant idea when President Roosevelt introduced them during the 1930s Depression. The government gave vouchers to the hungry so they could buy food from farmers who would otherwise go broke after leaving that food to rot. Stamps were revived as a permanent entitlement by JFK in 1961.
Ever since, U.S. government spending on agriculture has been second only to that on the military, in stark contrast to Canada, where ag has limited budgets.
Linking food stamps and farm commodity subsidies in one bill accounts for the odd couple of U.S. politics: anti-hunger activists and corporate food giants. Beauty and the beast hang tough together. One day anti-hunger advocates and leaders of food conglomerates team up to fend off free traders opposed to farm subsidies and right-wing opponents of America's biggest welfare program.
Another day they freeze out liberal opponents to the subsidies to cheap grains used to manufacture food high in fats and empty carbs.
About $50 billion of what's called "farm bill money" goes to low-income eaters via a series of about 15 food programs, from food stamps to school meals to nutrition programs for pregnant women. The recipients of these programs get food, not cash.
"Americans are generous, but they don't give cash," says blunt realist Ed Cooney, head of the Congressional Hunger Center, "because they think it promotes welfare dependency." That's why food programs are the cornerstone of the U.S. social safety net, unlike in Canada, where social programs send money, and where such items as medicare are provided for all, not targeted as a freebie only for the poor.
Social analysts like William Julius Wilson, author of the classic The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, The Underclass And Public Policy, argue that this targeting and stigmatization of people who use government programs leads away from an understanding of the universal rights that bind all groups in a society together.
Including middle- and upper-income people alongside poor people in universal programs like public schools and recreation centres also helps maintain service levels, because staff have to serve people with a high sense of entitlement.
By contrast, programs for the poor quickly become poor programs, Wilson argues. He says Canada's universal programs help make the country unique and less racked by chronic racial conflict than the U.S.
Americans on low incomes get a certain amount of food stamps, depending on where they fit on a poverty scale. A family of four living on about $20,000 annually is eligible for about $520-worth a month. The stamps, now paid by a kind of credit card, can only be used for food - not rent, transportation or booze.
But about a third of the people eligible for food stamps don't apply for them, either because they don't know which of the 15 programs they might qualify for or because they find the process too hard on their dignity.
State administrators often treat applicants as if they were slackers out to cheat the government, says Kate MacKenzie of New York's City Harvest. Applicants in New York have to be fingerprinted, she says. "Would they require farmers who get farm subsidies to have their fingerprints taken?" she asks.
This relatively low rate of uptake of food stamps may explain why food banks continue to grow south of the border despite an ostensibly foolproof way of ensuring that basic food needs are met.
Though it's unlikely the basic structures of government farm aid will change this year, the emergence of new coalitions linking nutrition, environment and social equity in the food realm is another indicator of changing times and a reminder that however ideological U.S. politics seems from the outside, horse-trading in the back rooms is still the main game.