Standing up for the Farm Bill
One might wonder why two heads of Jewish organizations are writing about the Farm Bill. After all, most American Jews do not live on farms. But this legislation touches almost every aspect of our food system and is as important to communities in New York and Miami as it is to those in Lincoln and Dubuque. In ancient times, our ancestors were commanded to leave the gleanings of their fields for the poor and the stranger. Today, we have an obligation to step up to the plate and make a difference in the debate over our national food and agriculture policies.
In an effort to achieve our values-inspired vision of food justice, American Jewish World Service and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs have come together with four other national Jewish organizations – the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life, Hazon, MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, and the Union for Reform Judaism - to form the Jewish Farm Bill Working Group. These organizations are joined by several others in endorsing a statement of principles called the “Jewish Platform for a Just Farm Bill.”
We are united in the belief that as people of faith we cannot stand idly by when millions go hungry at home and abroad. The link between food and faith obligates our community to challenge the injustice of hunger, to champion the rights of all for nutritious food, and to steward the land on which our sustenance depends.The reauthorization of the Farm Bill is an opportunity to put these principles into practice.
How can we support programs that work and reform those that don’t so that our tax dollars do more to reverse hunger within the United States and beyond our borders?
First, we must expand access to critical federal nutrition programs, particularly the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). SNAP works effectively to improve the nutritional status and well-being of America’s most vulnerable, including significant numbers of children, older Americans, and disabled populations. In November of last year, SNAP put healthy food on the tables of 46.3 million low-income families and in 2010 it kept 3.9 million Americans from falling into poverty. SNAP’s benefits are one of the most effective forms of economic stimulus by maintaining demand for food and getting money quickly back into local economies. Moody’s Analytics estimated that every $1 increase in SNAP benefits generates $1.72 in economic activity. Current calls by some in Congress to reduce funding would actually undermine efforts to strengthen our economy.
Additionally, there is a pressing need to create incentives for small U.S. farmers to make their products more accessible to all Americans. The 2008 Farm Bill’s provisions included subsidies for agricultural commodities such as corn and soybeans, but virtually excluded farms that grow less-industrialized fruits and vegetables for consumers. Subsidies for smaller farms could help reduce the cost of produce at neighborhood grocery stores — an improvement that would help families stretch their dollars to purchase more nutritious food.
Another area ripe for change is international food aid policy. The U.S. supplies more than half of all food aid worldwide. Current requirements that aid be bought, processed and shipped from here to areas in need hamstring our ability to do the greatest good. More than half of every dollar for food aid grains is spent on agribusiness and shipping subsidies instead of food for hungry people. We have a one-size-fits-all approach for an increasingly complex world. What we need are more tools to address the triple threat of high food prices, natural disasters and humanitarian emergencies. The local and regional procurement pilot program authorized in the 2008 Farm Bill shows enormous promise. Locally-procured food arrived in communities 14 weeks faster than aid shipped from the U.S. This is critically important for vulnerable populations including pregnant women, lactating mothers and children. More emphasis on local procurement would stretch taxpayer dollars further toward reversing hunger.
Our Jewish values call upon us as Americans to take a stand on these issues. These important programs, along with many others, must be improved and protected to reach our goal of a just Farm Bill.
The reauthorization of the farm bill comes only once every five years. The hungry shouldn’t have to wait another day. As winter turns to spring, Jews will begin preparations for celebrating Passover. If Congress does not act now, we will lose our chance to create the world envisioned in our Seder ritual when we open our doors and ask to “let all who are hungry come and eat.”
Messinger is the president of American Jewish World Service, and Rabbi Gutow is president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.