A Simple Feast

Creating a just and healthy food system

As I begin to write this column, I am reminded of a poem by Mary Oliver:

Today is a day of
dark clouds and slow rain.
The little blades of corn
are so happy.

As farmers labor and seeds sprout, our elected politicians are making policies that inform the livelihoods of farmers and rural communities, what children eat in school, how we respond to impacts of climate change on agriculture, and more.

The U.S. Farm Bill is the biggest and most influential farm policy tool that is written by Congress every five years. This year is the year for a new farm bill. It has a direct effect on more than 900 million acres of farmland in the United States, 2 million U. S. farmers, 45 million Americans who rely on food assistance, and millions of people around the world who receive U.S. food aid in the context of famine, natural disaster, and conflict.

Much is at stake as Congress deliberates and decides on our farm policy. In late April the public process of debate began when the Senate Agriculture Committee issued a draft of the 2012 Farm Bill, the “Agriculture Reform, Food, and Jobs Act” (ARFJA), which they approved on April 26.

Eva Jensen

The savings in the proposed 2012 Farm Bill will be carried on the backs of rural communities, farmers who grow food for local and regional consumption, farmers who employ conservation practices, and low income households that struggle to put food on the table.

Existing Farm Bill programs are designed primarily for commodity production in the form of subsidies, research, crop insurance, and other risk-management programs that primarily support industrial scale farms and multinational food conglomerates. Similar programs are not available to small and medium-size growers of fruit, vegetables, and other “specialty crops.” While increasing numbers of people are demanding healthy and more locally grown foods, local food systems that grow, produce, and distribute edible foods receive only a tiny portion of Farm Bill spending.

A work in progress

The new Farm Bill could help bring balance to a distorted farm system. A new farm policy could support the growing demand for nutritious food, healthier diets and vital communities by bringing equity to the allocation of federal dollars in order to build local food systems – small and medium-size farms, rural communities, urban consumers and food producers, locally scaled processing, marketing and distribution infrastructure. Many farmers have had to integrate into industrial agriculture because support has not been available for smaller scale farming systems.

As it stands now, the Senate Bill includes important support for organic farmers and some programs linked to community and local food systems. It also makes permanent and expands the local and regional food procurement program for international food aid, which will help developing countries build local food production systems as they recover from disasters. Yet, it does not shift the balance from a disproportionate support for industrial agriculture.

The committee cut $4.45 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

The bill anticipates about $23 billion in savings over 10 years, with most of the cuts coming from commodity payments, conservation programs, and nutrition assistance programs. The savings will be carried on the backs of rural communities, farmers who grow food for local and regional consumption, farmers who employ conservation practices, and low income households that struggle to put food on the table. The committee cut $4.45 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

The important overhaul of the commodity subsidy programs shifts money from automatic direct payments to expanded federal insurance programs for commodity crops. The challenge is that the insurance program provides protection without requiring farmers to deal with climate change. Crop insurance payouts are increasing dramatically as extreme weather events associated with climate change become more common. The costs of this program could grow exponentially if the effects of climate change on agriculture are not addressed.

The Farm Bill is a work in progress. Now is the time to advocate for improvements in the Senate bill and influence the writing of the House bill. You can learn more and get involved by networking with organizations that are working to create a new farm policy. See their websites for reports and action alerts:

1. National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition: http://sustainableagriculture.net/our-work/fbcampaign/

2. Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy: http://iatp.org

3. Community Food Security Coalition: http://foodsecurity.org/2012Farm Bill.html

4. Bread for the World: http://bread.org (See its 2012 Hunger Report.)

Eva Jensen is an ELCA pastor living in Minneapolis.

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