Jewish Groups Demand a Just Farm Bill
Why is the Jewish community speaking up about the Farm Bill?
The Jewish Working Group for a Just Farm Bill, a coalition of 12 Jewish organizations including the URJ, took on this question Wednesday at two policy briefings on Capitol Hill. The briefings marked the public launch of the Working Group’s Jewish Platform for a Just Farm Bill, which lays out priorities for a reauthorized Farm Bill that helps reduce hunger and poverty in America and encourages sustainable stewardship of the land. The RAC’s Legislative Director Barbara Weinstein moderated the back-to-back panels, on which Josh Protas of the Jewish Council of Public Affairs (JCPA), Mia Hubbard of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, and Timi Gerson of American Jewish World Service (AJWS), shared their priorities for the upcoming 2012 Farm Bill.
The Farm Bill, an omnibus piece of legislation reauthorized approximately every five years, broadly impacts how food is grown and distributed domestically and around the world. The policies laid out in the bill impact agricultural production and federal food assistance programs, and past reauthorizations have strengthened conservation practices that protect the land, air and water from harmful pollution or abuse. Because of the significant impact that U.S. agriculture policy has on the global food system, the Farm Bill also carries major implications for foreign food aid programs that help those living in poverty abroad.
Barbara began by framing the Farm Bill debate around issues of justice -- food justice, environmental justice, and human justice. In the Jewish tradition, she emphasized, there is no more urgent moral command than the demand to protect and uplift the poor and the weak, to reach out to the stranger in times of need. These values resonate with more than a century of Union for Reform Judaism resolutions on addressing food and hunger issues, beginning with the 1879 URJ Resolution Encouraging Agriculture Among Jews -- “which didn’t quite take off,” Barbara joked -- culminating with the 2011 URJ Resolution on Principles of Economic Justice in a Time of Fiscal Crisis, calling on the U.S. government to preserve vital social safety net programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as Food Stamps).
Perhaps most significant for this Farm Bill reauthorization will be the funding for domestic food assistance programs such as SNAP. JCPA’s Josh Protas emphasized that SNAP is a model of a “highly-effective [government] program that does exactly what it is supposed to do” – lift needy families out of poverty. Mia Hubbard of MAZON spoke of the Farm Bill’s impact on the broader social safety net, notably The Temporary Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) which does so much to help stock our food banks. In a completely unacceptable and irresponsible response to the current fiscal crisis, Josh noted, programs like SNAP and TEFAP have been abused as if they were “a federal ATM machine,” with lawmakers failing to acknowledge that for tens of millions of Americans, SNAP and TEFAP are the last resort to feeding themselves and their families. The 2012 Farm Bill must not cut vital funding for or take steps to restructure these vital programs.
AJWS’s Timi Gerson shifted the conversation to focus on issues abroad and the ways in which the Farm Bill impacts foreign food aid policy. Noting the inefficiencies of growing wheat and other commodities domestically to then ship abroad, she emphasized the need to switch to the local and regional production models which support local economies. “Often times, it’s not that there is no food in these countries - it’s that the food is too expensive to buy,” she said. Switching to a food aid model which supports purchasing food in countries where that food is already available will prevent the jacked-up food prices that force so many into hunger today.
Although not discussed in detail at Wednesday’s Hill briefing, another vital aspect of the Farm Bill is conservation policy. With 40 percent of our nation’s land used for agriculture, the public investments in conservation programs authorized by the Farm Bill play an important role in mitigating environmental degradation and potential economic losses. In 2011 alone, American farmers suffered more crop losses than in any other year in recorded history, largely due to historic flooding, droughts, and other natural disasters. Cutting conservation programs, such as those that help control soil erosion and prevent water contamination, would only exacerbate the current losses faced by farmers and degrade the land, air, and water in our communities. Among the upcoming reforms in the 2012 Farm Bill, a requirement for farmers to adopt conservation practices in order to receive crop insurance could go a long way in ensuring our environment is protected and the long-term economic viability of our farms is strengthened.
As the debate over the 2012 Farm Bill starts to take off, thousands of Americans have already raised their voices. Over 15,000 people have signed the Jewish Petition for a Just Farm Bill, calling for legislation that prioritizes reducing hunger and poverty and encouraging sustainable stewardship. Click here to add your name to the petition and stand with the Jewish Working Group for a Just Farm Bill as we advocate for the 2012 Farm Bill to embody tzedek - or justice - for all.