More than just talk: Jewish drive for ‘Just Farm Bill’

Thursday, June 28, 2012 | by deborah newbrun

Last week, my colleague Cheryl Cook, Hazon’s COO, stood in the sun on the steps of Capitol Hill with six other Jewish leaders holding jars of sunflower seeds representing 18,000 signatures collected from the American Jewish community on a petition calling for a “Just Farm Bill.”

Their purpose: To let government know that Jews across America consider food policies, food access and sustainable stewardship of our agricultural lands to be Jewish issues.

Cook said the representatives from the USDA and White House with whom they met were excited and surprised by this unprecedented showing of 20 Jewish organizations responding to the Farm Bill, including all four of our major denominations. They commented that we are claiming religious moral authority to make our claims. We noticed the unabashed use of the word “moral” to describe our work; maybe we should claim to be the moral majority on this one.

vnewburn_with_nameThe omnibus Farm Bill has just been passed by a bipartisan 64-35 vote in the Senate and now it faces a tougher House that has to pass it by Sept. 30.

What is the Farm Bill, and why is it a Jewish issue?

The Farm Bill (which comes up for ratification about once every five years) dictates among other things, how much aid goes to 45 million hungry Americans in a program formerly known as Food Stamps and now called SNAP (supplementary nutrition assistance program). It dictates how this country, the largest donor of global food aid, responds to emergencies like famines and earthquakes.

The Farm Bill also determines what subsidies U.S. farmers receive, and it has the potential to support innovative farming programs for small farmers, organic farmers and young farmers. (The median age of American farmers is 65 years.) The Farm Bill is a very big deal.

At Hazon’s Food Conference last August in Davis, I heard a spunky young woman working for American Jewish World Service describe the AJWS agenda for the next Farm Bill. In particular, AJWS wants U.S. aid to focus on helping local farmers in needy countries rather than paying huge amounts to the U.S. shipping industry to bring U.S.-grown food to distant lands that can 1) take far too long to reach people in need and 2) actually undercut local farmers.

Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger and the National Council on Jewish Women have mobilized to protest cuts from the SNAP budget by freshmen senators representing the tea party because it mostly hurts hungry women and children.

Members of the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee, led by Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich., center),  praise the bipartisan passage of the farm bill in Washington, D.C., June 21.   photo/ap-scott applewhite
Members of the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee, led by Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich., center), praise the bipartisan passage of the farm bill in Washington, D.C., June 21. photo/ap-scott applewhite
Hazon supports these causes, and more broadly calls for healthy and sustainable communities, in the Jewish world and beyond. In the Bay Area, Hazon is working with Jewish institutions to think about the food they serve. Is it local? Organic? Waste-free? In fact, we have people cycling across the country right now carrying another petition to raise support of sustainable food systems, which we’ll deliver to the USDA in August (see story on page 10). We are hoping the House won’t make deeper cuts to SNAP and other environmental friendly amendments that are part of the Bill.

What’s a nice Jewish organization doing getting mixed up in the farm bill? Well, our tradition is full of texts and stories that combine agriculture and social justice.

From Leviticus, we learn the laws of Pe’ah, leaving the corners of our fields for the poor and the stranger. We also learn about Aser t’aser, or tithing, which is giving away a tenth of the yield of our produce and flocks. And we receive instruction on Orlah, giving the fruit of our trees to the priests in the year before we are permitted to eat them ourselves.

We also are commanded to shikhecha, leaving that which falls on the ground during the harvest for the stranger, the fatherless, the widow. And why do we do this? Because we were strangers in Egypt and we know what’s like to be an outsider, needy, hungry and oppressed by poverty. This is not charity. It is justice, our obligation.

And while most of us aren’t farmers anymore, and we don’t have corners of our fields to give, we do pay taxes, we do make donations, and we do vote.

Additionally, we have been commanded to care for the Earth. Our texts teach us not to wantonly destroy. But our country’s agricultural production systems are a large contributing factor to the production of greenhouse gasses, and are the cause of toxins flowing into our water systems. So we at Hazon seek a farm bill that promotes sustainable agriculture that does less damage to the Earth.


Deborah Newbrun
, the Bay Area director of Hazon, co-authored the 2000 book “Spirit In Nature: Teaching Judaism and Ecology on the Trail.” Find out more about the “Just Farm Bill” at http://www.hazon.org.