Why Jews Should Care About the Farm Bill (Washington Jewish Week)
Sept. 29 marks the next phase of the sacred High Holy Day season with the beginning of Sukkot. This year, the Jewish community’s harvest festival aligns with the expiration of the Farm Bill — one of the most transformational pieces of legislation that Congress regularly reauthorizes.
The Farm Bill is a massive piece of legislation that sets U.S. policy for agriculture, conservation and many other sectors, and it provides structure and funding for critical anti-hunger programs like SNAP (formerly food stamps), which is the cornerstone of our country’s nutrition safety net. This legislation has major implications for our national food system, balancing the priorities and needs of those who produce food with those who consume it. The bill has been likened to a Swiss Army knife, encapsulating wide-reaching themes related to infrastructure, research and innovation, as well as modern-day social justice issues like whether and how we judge, empower or support those in our community who fall on hard times and struggle to feed their families.
During Sukkot, we remember our history as an agrarian society and the profound connection between our faith and the land. Our ancestors planted, harvested and shared their bounty with the community. Today, we are not all farmers, but we can still carry out modern interpretations of the commandment to practice Pe’ah — to leave the corners of our fields for the poor and the stranger (Leviticus 19:9-11). Many of our communities do this through food drives, which provide temporary help for those facing hunger in our local communities. This can be truly vital, but it’s simply not adequate. We can, and we must, implement enduring programs that provide real food security for all those who find themselves facing persistent hunger.
The Farm Bill implements this nation’s signature food security program — SNAP (formerly food stamps). In 2018, the Farm Bill authorized an important update to SNAP, which triggered powerful and long-overdue reforms to modernize the program so that the benefits could better meet the needs of food-insecure Americans, including an increase in the amount of support that recipients receive. Now, the average SNAP recipient receives about $2 per meal, which, while still modest, can make a real difference for families who struggle. Yet, even with an increase in SNAP, families receiving it will often run out of benefits in the second or third week of any given month, forcing them to turn to charitable organizations like food pantries, which are typically stretched to their limits.
Despite the effectiveness, flexibility and economic value of SNAP and other federal nutrition programs, some in Congress will jump at any opportunity to restrict benefits for those who they do not think deserve support. The political rhetoric around “work requirements” is really a veiled debate about harshening time limits for how long someone can receive help from SNAP when they are struggling to find or maintain work. SNAP is an anti-hunger program; it’s not a work program.
It is outrageous that some elected officials continue to perpetuate tired and offensive stereotypes by blaming and shaming poor people — language that has been shown to dissuade people from seeking the help they need and to which they are entitled. It is reprehensible for those in power to try to make it more difficult for those facing hunger to access government support when they need it most.
Our Jewish values, our tradition and our beliefs obligate us to raise our voices to push back on insidious stereotypes, cruel limitations on who deserves help, and policies that strip people of their dignity and their humanity.
We must use our voices to reframe the public narrative about hunger and how our policymakers approach it. We must remind our policymakers that all people were created b’tselem Elohim, in the image of God, and therefore each person has inherent dignity and value. We must prioritize a justice-centered approach to ending hunger, incorporating both tikkun olam (repairing the world) and tzedek (justice) in a recognition that charity alone cannot address the scope of food insecurity in this country.
Empowered by our Jewish traditions, we must urge our policymakers to approach the Farm Bill reauthorization by reflecting on our shared values, exploring effective policy solutions and acting with compassion and humanity toward those in need of assistance. We must demand better and more equitable policies for communities facing historical and ongoing injustice, like indigenous communities and the people of Puerto Rico, as well as those facing unique barriers to support, like military families. We must speak truth to power to ensure equitable access to nutritious food for all Americans.
Regardless of circumstance, no one deserves hunger. Every person should be able to feed themselves and their families with dignity and choice. Our federal government fulfills this moral calling and our collective responsibility to care for those among us who struggle with hunger, and the next Farm Bill must strengthen SNAP and other essential federal safety net programs to achieve this goal.
Our Jewish history and traditions compel us to fight hunger. For many of us advocating for an end to hunger, this work is deeply Jewish. This Sukkot — as we think about themes of harvest, scarcity, peoplehood and justice — let’s fight for our values to be reflected in the Farm Bill.