Originally posted on The Jew and the Carrot.

While headlines about the Farm Bill focus on the role of commodity subsidies in creating the ubiquity of processed foods in the U.S. (and increasingly in the global) food system, on the final day of the 2011 Hazon Food Conference, some of the most passionate and committed members of what some are calling the “new Jewish food movement” got a deeper look at the details of the policy landscape that shapes the way the U.S. food system functions and influences the rest of the globe.

At the “Farm Bill 2012: How the Jewish community and you can make a difference” workshop, presenters Oran Hesterman of the Fair Food Network and Dahlia Rockowitz of American Jewish World Service provided a background into why our policies look the way they do — the intentions with which they were designed, and how we can change them. Illustrating the critical role played by many of the Farm Bill’s sections other than the commodity payments, both presenters raised some serious questions for the audience, and pointed us in the direction to begin to use our voices as citizens and voters to answer them:

Should farmers with incomes over $250,000 be receiving subsidies?
How do we use government dollars to get the healthy, fresh food to people who need it?
Should we be spending 60% of food aid dollars on US shipping industry?

And most importantly: Who is your Member of Congress and what are they doing about these issues?

Although the farm bill and food justice were threads running throughout the conference, most of the audience was shocked to learn that 68% of the funding in the 2008 farm bill was devoted not to the commodity title — or the section of the bill that contains what we think of in the mainstream as “farm subsidies” — but to the nutrition title, which funds food stamps. The commodity title receives only 12% of the funding in the farm bill, with the rest being split between the other 13 titles ranging from conservation and organic, to credit, rural development, trade and biofuels.

In addition to SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) or food stamps, which make up its majority, the nutrition title also funds US food aid programs abroad as well as newer initiatives focused on increasing access to healthy foods and incentivizing their purchase by low-income Americans. Rockowitz highlighted the ways in which US food aid directly challenges the ability of farmers around the world to maintain their livelihoods, as well as how we can change that. Although this sounds counterintuitive, in fact, many of these policies serve the very purposes they were designed to create, unlike the systems of commodity payments, which have changed drastically since they were originally designed during the Great Depression.

The food aid system was set up in the 1950s both to get rid of excess commodities produced in the US and to yield good will for the US around the world. But the role in propping up US agribusiness has reigned supreme, and what it looks like now is that the US government purchases food commodities grown in the US, ships it on US ships and distributing it or selling it abroad. In addition, to being a highly inefficient system — with over 60% of the funding going to support the US shipping industry — this has resulted in devastating consequences for countries like Haiti, which was self-sufficient in rice production in the 1970s and now has to import 80% of their rice. After the earthquake in Haiti, a glut of US rice sold there, made it impossible for Haitian rice farmers to make a living — due to American subsidies, rice grown in the large plantations of Arkansas cost barely half the price of the Haitian produced rice.

“It’s the equivalent of having Entenmann’s free samples next to a school bake sale,” said Rockowitz, before explaining that American Jewish World Service is working to see that the next farm bill increases the amount of food aid that is purchased locally (near its humanitarian destination), which is the common practice of the other major humanitarian donor countries, and has begun through a $60 million pilot in the last farm bill and a practice used for most of the food aid for the recent Pakistani flooding disaster.

Hesterman, author of, Fair Food: Growing a Healthy, Sustainable Food System for All, and founder of the Fair Food Network is working to “help food assistance policy grow into nutrition, health and economic development policy.” He encouraged supporters of healthy, sustainable food access to get behind a series of policy priorities, including providing federal funding for programs like Double Up Food Bucks, which allows Michigan’s SNAP beneficiaries to double their purchasing power when they buy locally grown food at certain farmer’s markets in Detroit.

Other policies the Fair Food Network wants to see included in the next Farm Bill are allowing farmers to receive subsidies for planting fruits and vegetables, and direct funding for these crops to target communities with unequal access to healthy, fresh food, redirecting credit from the farm credit agency to small, sustainable and diversified farmers. They would also like the Farm Bill to support food hubs which aggregate local and regional farm products to help sell to individuals, schools, hospitals and other local institutions; increase the number of Farm to School funding pilots; and support the Healthy Food Financing Initiative to bring healthy food retail into areas that are lacking it.

For many of the participants, this session was a culmination of discussions running throughout the conference about the role our government could and should play in moving towards food systems imbued with more sustainability and justice. One of the core issues was summed up by Rockowitz when she said, about why AJWS has committed to changing our system of international food aid, “If it’s an access issue and not a quantity issue, then it’s a justice issue.”

Both Rockowitz and Hesterman urged participants to recognize the role we all have in changing many of the policies that we don’t like — we need to vote, get to know the role of our particular members of Congress in either maintaining the status quo or changing these policies, and raise awareness within our Jewish communities about how we can work together to make change. One of the opportunities to do this is the upcoming Global Hunger Shabbat, organized by AJWS and partners on November 4 and 5. Many of the participants in this and other workshops have committed to taking the passion and knowledge generated at the conference back to Jewish communities throughout the US and continuing to build a more organized, more powerful movement within the Jewish community for are more just food system.

Aliza R. Wasserman studied food and agriculture policy and works for a local public health department. She is the founder of the three-year-old “Farm-to-Shul” effort based at the Moishe Kavod House in Brookline, MA.