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Faith advocates see victories in new farm bill

Catholic groups applaud bipartisan work on bill

WASHINGTON — The farm bill that passed both houses of Congress by wide margins doesn’t have money in it to protect endangered species, but it did preserve one that had been on the threatened list: bipartisanship.

“We were so excited that the Senate acted like grown-ups,” said Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of Network, a Catholic social justice lobby.

“They actually did governance, and they had hearings. … It was far beyond partisanship in actually trying to make government work,” Sister Simone said Dec. 13.

Jim Ennis, executive director of Catholic Rural Life, was happy Congress acted relatively swiftly. This was the first time a farm bill passed without needing an extension of the expiring version since 1990, when George H.W. Bush was president.

Not all farmers will reap benefits from the farm bill.

“We’ve got lots of folks hurting in rural communities, but you can’t put everything in one bill,” Ennis said Dec. 14. “You just can’t.”

Sister Simone, a Sister of Social Service, gave Sen. Pat Roberts, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee and Republican senator from Kansas, credit for “listening to many of the agricultural workers in Kansas who use SNAP (the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) in the off-season.”

Farmers who hire them “depend on their workers being able to eat,” and Roberts saw this “through the eyes of the farmworkers and the farmers,” she said.

Sister Simone also lauded Roberts’ Democratic counterpart on the committee, Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan: “She has worked hard to put together a very collaborative relationship with him, so together, they could create a bill they could be proud of.”

The Senate passed the farm bill in a 87-13 vote Dec. 11. The House passed it 369-47 Dec. 12. The bill was awaiting the signature of President Donald Trump.

One point of contention between the original House and Senate versions was a provision in the House bill that would have imposed stricter work requirements for SNAP eligibility, with stretches of SNAP ineligibility growing longer each time a recipient failed to report their work, or looking for work, in a timely manner. The House ultimately removed that from its version of the bill.

Having a farm bill in place gives farmers “stability for planning for next year,” Ennis said.

While Canadian markets will gradually open for dairy products under this bill, a potential future bill might focus on dairy farmers, Ennis said.

The Rev. David Beckmann, a Lutheran minister who is president of the Christian citizen anti-hunger lobby Bread for the World, praised the bill for its inclusion of additional funding for employment and training pilot projects — including funding prioritizing specific populations such as older Americans, former prison inmates, people with disabilities and families facing multigenerational poverty.

It also creates and funds a new program allowing health care providers to give prescriptions for low-income people to buy fresh fruits and vegetables.

The farm bill eliminates a requirement in the federal Food for Peace program to sell U.S. food commodities overseas to pay for life-saving food and nutrition programs; the complicated requirement had been cutting about $70 million from food aid each year. The legislation also gives the McGovern-Dole Food for Education program more flexibility to purchase from local farmers and markets, which will improve the nutritional quality of the food for preschool and school feeding programs in foreign countries.

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