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Advocating for a Just Farm Bill on Capitol Hill

| March 5, 2012

By Ilan Caplan | March 1, 2012 | Originally posted on The Jew and the Carrot.

“This just makes common sense, and—I think—it makes Jewish sense.”

That is how Timi Gerson of the American Jewish World Service (AJWS), closed the House of Representatives policy briefing organized by the Jewish Working Group for a Just Farm Bill.

I was privileged to watch this briefing in action. The panelists, Barbara Weinstein of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (the RAC); Josh Protas of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA); Mia Hubbard of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger; and Timi Gerson of AJWS, had addressed an audience earlier that day in the one of the Senate conference rooms: a spacious, red-carpeted room bedecked with large portraits of senators past and present. This second briefing was in a smaller, more intimate room, not substantially different from the Multi-Purpose Room of my childhood synagogue in suburban New Jersey.

The message was equally clear in both settings: “We, as representatives of the American Jewish community, want a just Farm Bill, and we are concerned that we might not get it.” Mia addressed the reason: “MAZON … has worked on a lot of Farm Bills. But this one is different.” The difference? A slow economic recovery and a government focused on deficit reduction—hefty challenges in a time of great need.

But Mia also noted one positive answer to “Why is this [Farm Bill] fight different from all other [Farm Bill] fights?” For the first time, the newly convened Jewish Working Group for a Just Farm Bill has brought a unified American Jewish voice to food justice, an issue that has energized many American Jews in a new way this year.

The relationship between Jews and food justice ran through each panelist’s presentation. Barbara noted the long connection— “since Biblical times”— between Jews, agriculture and justice. Josh reminded the crowd that the Passover Seders are approaching, marked by the traditional declaration, “All who are hungry, come and eat.” He went on to advocate for more consistent, secure funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), or the “food stamp” program. In recent years, this cornerstone government food assistance program has had its funds siphoned for other purposes – as Josh put it, “like a federal ATM machine.”

Mia reemphasized the need for our government to maintain SNAP funding, and advocated additionally for another domestic food assistance program, The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP). She noted that hunger does not escape any U.S. district, and reminded us that government assistance programs like SNAP and TEFAP – not food banks and charitable services – should be treated as the first line of defense for food security. Timi wrapped up the conversation by advocating for greater flexibility in our food aid policy. Invoking Maimonides’ declaration that the highest form of giving is one that supports self-sufficiency, she urged Congress to adopt a policy that would allow the U.S. to support purchasing food in countries where food is available, rather than sustaining our current, less efficient and more expensive policy that requires the U.S. to ship American food overseas. Timi reminded the audience that this recommendation enjoys bi-partisan support and the backing of virtually all international development experts. “The only thing getting in the way is politics and special interests.”

One of the audience members, Ellen Teller of the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC), praised the panelists for bringing Jewish organizations together and gathering support from over 15,000 Jewish petition signers and 12 additional national Jewish organizations. “You are national, but you are also the local communities nationwide,” she reminded us. “That is where you can make real change happen.”

If there is one thing I learned from visiting Capitol Hill, it is that constituents’ voices matter a great deal. If you haven’t signed the Jewish Petition for a Just Farm Bill, please wait no longer. If you haven’t encouraged your friends to sign the petition, please do. Before Purim or Passover, email your Senator or district representative —or better yet, schedule an in-district meeting— to emphasize that you care about fighting hunger domestically and internationally. Talk about your Hunger Seder or your Global Hunger Shabbat. Tell them you are representing yourself and the rest of the American Jewish community, a community that desperately wants to eradicate hunger worldwide. Tell them our government can take measurable steps to make this a reality— if only there were the political will.

The message of the Jewish Working Group for a Just Farm Bill is that from all corners of the country, we can work together as a Jewish community with one voice. Let’s exercise responsible citizenship in this season of feasts. It just makes Jewish sense.

The Jewish Working Group for a Just Farm Bill includes representatives from American Jewish World Service (AJWS), the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL), Hazon, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA), MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger and the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ).

Ilan Caplan is a Program Associate at American Jewish World Service.

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