The New Farm Bill
On December 20, 2018, President Trump signed into law the 2018 Agriculture Improvement Act, commonly referred to as the farm bill. Since the late 1930s during the great depression, Congress has reauthorized about every four or five years an omnibus package of farm and food laws that provides the blueprint for our national agricultural and nutrition policy.
As Catholics, we should also strive to see the spiritual dimension of the farm bill, as it is so integrated into the basics of human life. A nation’s food and agricultural policy reflects our part in the stewardship of the creation that God entrusted to our care, and which provides us with, as our Lord himself prayed for, “our daily bread.”
Given the origins of the first farm bill during the era of the Dust Bowl, conservation and stewardship, along with economic safety net programs that support the livelihoods of agricultural producers and rural communities in times of economic stress, have been part of the bulwark of this particular societal response to the struggles of our brothers and sisters in need. Moreover, starting in the 1970s, nutrition and domestic feeding programs were added to the farm bill. In fact, approximately 80 percent of the new farm bill is dedicated to helping feed the hungry through such programs.
The primary food assistance component of the farm bill is known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), a program that started out known as “food stamps.” It is a large and complex program with wide ranging effects. During the deliberations over the 2018 farm bill, like the 2014 farm bill before it, SNAP also emerged as the most contentious policy debates.
Indeed, deliberations over the SNAP provisions delayed the passage of both of these farm bill reauthorizations. While the recently enacted Agriculture Improvement Act was eventually approved within the year which its drafting started, legislative, political and philosophical disagreements delayed what was supposed to be the 2012 farm bill reauthorization until 2014. Those disagreements primarily centered on work requirements and fraud prevention.
As citizens, voters and taxpayers we should view these debates with an open mind to sincerely look for the honorable and good intentions of policy makers on both sides. As Catholics, we must weigh these matters against one key benchmark: how these programs promote and preserve human dignity.
As Catholic Charities has stated, “addressing poverty requires not only ensuring people have access to basic necessities to support their families but also providing help to get families back on their feet.” Thus, that group has called attention to a small and simple, but a morally important, program: nutrition education under SNAP, known as SNAP-Ed. That program was extended in the 2018 farm bill.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture calls it “an evidence-based program that helps people lead healthier lives” by teaching people who use, or are eligible for, SNAP benefits about good nutrition and how to make their food dollars stretch further. It is an important way to care for the poor by ensuring a Just Food System that does not alienate nor abuse the poor.
As members of Catholic Rural Life, we should humbly reflect on the role the organization played during the 2018 farm bill, in both caring and speaking out about reducing hunger, combating rural poverty, protecting the natural resources that are God’s creation, and, as the Holy Father said in his 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’, recognizing agriculture as “an eloquent expression of that imperative to ‘till and keep the garden of the world’ to which we have been called.” Indeed, as Catholics, we have an ongoing obligation to the Earth, to its creatures, but most importantly, to each other.
— Julian Heron is an attorney and owner of a law firm in Washington DC and he also owns and operates a small farm in the area. He is a fully professed Third Order Dominican, Knight Commander of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulcher of Jerusalem, a Fourth degree member of the Knights of Columbus, and a Board Member of Catholic Rural Life.