This column ran as the featured commentary on UPI’s Religion and Spirituality Forum on August 6, 2007.
I wish the farm bill had a bigger place in the Great American Discourse.
Every five years, our elected leaders in Washington have the opportunity to set the policies that apportion federal subsidies given to America’s farmers, and when the farm bill comes up for renewal it is a great opportunity to ask some very basic, very important questions.
How do we want to eat? What kind of food do we want to feed America’s poor children who take advantage of the school breakfast and lunch programs that are underwritten by the federal farm bill? Which farmers and what kind of farming should derive the greatest benefit from federal financial aid?
Current farm bill policy invests billions of dollars each year into the production of cheap commodities such as corn, soy, rice, wheat, and cotton. These crops—with the exception of cotton— then are used to create food that, for the most part, is artificially inexpensive, highly processed, and usually unhealthy. Under the system that now is in place, the biggest farm bill winners are not so much the farmers who cultivate the commodities, but large food production companies such as Archers Daniel Midland, ConAgra, and Cargill, who convert inexpensive commodities into much of the food that is consumed from sea to shining sea, including the Pop-Tarts and Fruit Loops, chicken nuggets and French fries that are typical meals served in just about every other public school in the nation.
This is the year that the farm bill is up for review, but despite some good effort among activists and a few brave politicians, it looks very much like the status quo will prevail for the next five years. An effort to amend the farm bill in favor of small farmers producing fruits and vegetables rather than large agribusiness growing grain-based commodities has failed in the House. Prospects for such an amendment don’t look particularly good in the Senate either, and the Bush Administration probably has too much on its plate to expend any political capital on a better farm bill.
The way Americans eat really matters to me, and I’d like to see my elected leaders share my concern, but more important than the American diet is the condition of America’s poor. As a Christian I cannot ignore the biblical mandate to care for the poor, and while most American Christians don’t read them, the Bible’ passages that talk about farm policy are clear. Farm policy must protect the poor. For example, farmers are commanded not to harvest all of their crops in the fields, but must leave some behind so that the poor, indigent, and marginalized can be fed (Deuteronomy 24:19-22); the Jubilee laws in Leviticus 25 mandate the return of property that is sold to its original owners after fifty years, a policy that favors small farm ownership over and against large-scale farming.
While a strict adherence to such scriptural mandates would be impossible in the modern world, the biblical witness is that farm policy should safeguard the wellbeing of the less fortunate among us, and the manifestation of such concern is possible in contemporary public policy. Current farm policy directs large sums of taxpayers’ money to underwrite large agribusiness corporations, but does little to help keep small family farms out of foreclosure; it makes a luxury out of fresh produce and other healthy foods, while saying of the poor who depend on such benefits as the school breakfast and lunch programs “let them eat Pop-Tarts.”
A moral society can do better. And we should.