Farm bill and food aid: Congress debates key legislation

In 2012, Congress began debating a massive farm bill that affects struggling families as well as those who make their living from agriculture: Food stamps and other federal nutrition programs account for about 80 percent of the $100 billion in annual spending under the legislation. The Senate passed the 2012 U.S. Farm Bill in June 2012. It failed to pass in the House, resulting in an extension of the 2008 Farm Bill. On May 14, 2013, a new version of the Farm Bill was introduced to the Senate for consideration.

Background

The current law expired at the end of September 2012; the legislation comes up for renewal every five years.

Agreement on the measure isn’t likely to come easily. Spending hawks see the bill as an opportunity for significant savings; over the next decade, the version now before the Senate would cost nearly a trillion dollars. At present the annual cost for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (the official name for the food stamps program) is $75 billion.

On the other side, groups intent on alleviating hunger, including many religious organizations, say this is no time to put the squeeze on the needy.

By framing the argument that way, the farm bill has spawned a parallel debate about the morality of government aid: Is it cultivating dependence or simply providing a temporary safety net?

Critics have voiced alarm that some 45 million people (one in seven Americans) receive food stamps these days, while defenders note that program numbers always correspond to the economy’s strength, or weakness. It’s hardly a surprise, they say, that more people need help now than in the booming economy of July 2000, for example, when just 16.9 million Americans received food stamp assistance. (See Page 4 of this report, in PDF format.)

Some faith groups also want changes in U.S. food aid to other countries, to make those programs more effective and efficient, and they are concerned as well about fairness for farmers and ranchers, and conservation measures.

The attention to the farm bill is also part of the growing movement toward sustainable agriculture, which addresses a range of farm issues, including: environmental concerns, the decline of family farms, farm laborers’ working conditions, increasing production costs, and economic and social problems in rural communities. It promotes practices that address these issues and encourages the participation of farmers, laborers, policy-makers and consumers.

Many of the same issues came up during the debates surrounding the 2008 Farm Bill. A key discussion was whether the current farm subsidies program was working, or if it unfairly benefited the wealthy while slighting small farmers and rural communities.

This edition of ReligionLink explores the role faith groups are playing in shaping these debates and provides background and resources for reporters covering this story.

Resources

Articles

Why it matters

U.S. farm policy includes issues important to religious communities concerned with poverty, justice and the environment. While it’s set nationally, the policy plays out at the grass-roots level, in communities and rural areas around the country.

National sources

Government

  • Tom Vilsack

    Tom Vilsack is U.S. secretary of agriculture. See remarks he made in October 2011 about priorities for the 2012 farm bill.

    Contact: through the communications office, 202-720-4623.

In the U.S. Senate

In the U.S. House

U.S. mayors

  • Antonio Villaraigosa

    Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, which issued a statement April 12, 2012, decrying the House Agriculture Committee’s vote to cut $33 billion from food stamps. “If there’s a more misguided, mean-spirited and counterproductive way to address decades of deficits in this country, the Mayors of the United States can’t think of one,” the statement says.

Faith-based groups

  • “USCCB urges immediate action on farm bill”

    Read an article about the Catholic bishops of the United States urging their followers to lobby for a bill that does not cut support for the needy. They have published parish bulletin inserts and prayer cards “to help you pray and advocate for a 2012 Farm Bill that addresses domestic and global hunger and malnutrition.”

  • Bread for the World

    Bread for the World is the largest faith-based advocacy movement against hunger, a collective of Christian groups. It posts hunger facts and figures. It is based in Washington, D.C.

  • Interreligious Working Group on Domestic Human Needs

    The Interreligious Working Group on Domestic Human Needs connects faith-based and faith-affiliated groups that are working to end poverty in the U.S. The group aims to focus attention during the farm bill debate on shielding from budget cuts those federal programs that help the hungry.

  • Jewish Working Group for a Just Farm Bill

    The Jewish Working Group for a Just Farm Bill includes representatives from American Jewish World Service, the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life, Hazon, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger and the Union for Reform Judaism. Several spoke on Capitol Hill earlier this year about the bill.

  • MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger

    MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger is a national nonprofit agency working against hunger in the United States and abroad. Its president and CEO, Abby J. Leibman, says the 2012 farm bill should protect and increase food stamp funding, provide incentives for farmers to make produce more affordable at local markets and make nutritional improvements to the government’s surplus food program. Read her Oct. 6, 2011, column on the subject at Jweekly.com.

  • National Catholic Rural Life Conference

    The National Catholic Rural Life Conference is based in Iowa and applies Christian teaching to agriculture and food issues. The conference supports farm bill provisions that would “feed the hungry, preserve God’s creation, support small family farmers, and help rural America thrive.” It also supports creation care as part of its mission to protect rural life in America.

Major agricultural groups

Sustainable agriculture

Other organizations

Writers and academics

  • Mark E. Graham

    Mark E. Graham is an associate professor of moral theology at Villanova University, Villanova, Pa., and the author of Sustainable Agriculture: A Christian Ethic of Gratitude. He has taught courses on Christian environmental ethics.

  • Jerry Hagstrom

    Jerry Hagstrom is founder and executive editor of the Hagstrom Report, a Washington, D.C.-based news service focusing on agricultural news.

    Contact: 202-739-8440.
  • Dan Imhoff

    Dan Imhoff is an author, publisher and farmer in California whose writings on farm and environmental issues include the book Food Fight: A Citizen’s Guide to the Farm Bill, updated to reflect issues in this year’s bill. He is co-founder, director, and publisher of Watershed Media. Read an essay he wrote about the 2012 bill for the Oct. 3, 2011, issue of The Nation.

  • L. Shannon Jung

    The Rev. L. Shannon Jung is professor of town and country ministries at St. Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, Mo. He has written about rural ministry. His books include  Hunger & Happiness: Feeding the Hungry, Nourishing Our Souls and Food for Life: The Spirituality and Ethics of Eating.

  • Jennifer Maiser

    Jennifer Maiser edits the group blog EatLocalChallenge.com.

  • Michael Pollan

    Michael Pollan is Knight Professor of Journalism at University of California, Berkeley, where he directs the Knight Program in Science and Environmental Journalism. His books include The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. Read an Oct. 9, 2008, column on farm policy that he wrote for The New York Times.

Regional sources

In the Northeast

In the South

  • Sen. Saxby Chambliss

    Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., serves on the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee. He did not support the farm bill that came out of that committee.

    Contact: 202-224-3521.
  • Eva Clayton

    Eva Clayton is a former Democratic congresswoman from North Carolina who worked with Bread for the World for change in the 2007 farm bill.

  • Kenneth Dierschke

    Kenneth Dierschke is president of the Texas Farm Bureau. See his April 5, 2012, post, “What is it about the Farm Bill that is so difficult?”

    Contact: 254-772-3030.
  • L. LaSimba M. Gray Jr.

    The Rev. L. LaSimba M. Gray Jr., pastor of New Sardis Baptist Church in Memphis, Tenn., lobbied Congress on behalf of Bread for the World for reforms in the 2007 farm bill.

  • Daryll E. Ray

    Daryll E. Ray is a professor and holds the Blasingame Chair of Excellence in Agricultural Policy at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. He directs the Agricultural Policy Analysis Center. See a column on the 2012 farm bill that he wrote with Harwood Schaffer, research assistant professor for the center.

  • Ronda Rutledge

    Ronda Rutledge is executive director of the Sustainable Food Center in Austin, Texas. She has supported reforming the commodity program and improving rural development and nutrition programs.

  • Daniel Vestal

    Daniel Vestal was the executive coordinator of the Atlanta-headquartered Cooperative Baptist Fellowship until 2012. He lobbied Congress about the 2007 farm bill for reforms aimed at helping rural areas and poor farmers.

  • Norman Wirzba

    Norman Wirzba is professor of theology and ecology at Duke Divinity School in Durham, N.C. His research focuses on “understanding and promoting practices that can equip both rural and urban church communities to be more faithful and responsible members of creation,” specifically through eating as a spiritual discipline, theological reflection as informed by place and agrarianism as a viable and comprehensive cultural force. Wirzba’s books include (as co-author) Making Peace With the Land: God’s Call to Reconcile With Creation.

In the Midwest

In the West

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