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Christian anti-hunger activists target farm bill

Pastors, those parishioners in the front pew aren’t studying your sermon notes. They’re polishing up on their farm policy.

Or at least that could be what happens if some Christian anti-hunger activists are successful in mobilizing churches to get involved in the debate over the next farm bill.

Bread for the World, a Christian anti-hunger group, plans to distribute thousands of educational kits to churches around the country in hopes of getting congregants to urge members of Congress to overhaul federal agricultural and nutrition programs.

The “Seeds of Change” kits will include a handbook, DVD and bulletin inserts. The goal is to generate 150,000 letters to key members of Congress.

Bread for the World hasn’t released the kits yet, but the message will be this: America has a moral obligation to change the way it subsidizes farmers and put more money into conservation, nutrition and rural development.

“What we have learned is that the current system does not work for rural America,” said the Rev. David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World. “Disproportionately, the money in the farm bill is going to a relatively few people, mostly prosperous people.”

Nor, he adds, does the system work for poor farmers elsewhere in the world when U.S. production-stimulating subsidies push down commodity prices.

“Some of the same things that would make the farm bill better for rural America also would make it better for rural Ethiopia,” said Beckmann.

Bread for the World claims 59,000 members, including churches from 45 denominations. It also is part of a coalition called the Farm and Food Policy Project, whose participants include the Center for Rural Affairs, Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, Environmental Defense, the Iowa Environmental Council and the Soil and Water Conservation Society.

A draft, 15-page statement released last month pulled together a number of reform proposals that have been floating around for several years, including tighter limits on an individual farm’s subsidies; “green payments” that reward farmers for improved conservation practices; and subsidies tied to changes in revenue instead of production.

The coalition also wants more money for the nutrition programs that are part of the farm bill, including food stamps. The average food stamp benefit is now $1 per person per meal.

The statement calls for a “new direction in farm and food policy – one that takes the patchwork of existing programs that serve too few and creates instead a system that advances the interests of all Americans.”

It’s unlikely these groups can get Congress to make major changes in the commodity programs themselves. Farm groups strongly support extending the programs beyond 2007, and they’ve got allies in the chairmen of the House and Senate agriculture committees, Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., and Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa.

Moreover, much of what these groups want would cost a lot more money, which the Democrats who now run Congress would be hard-pressed to produce. The annual cost of the food stamp program alone has nearly doubled to $33 billion since 1999, because of growing participation.

But 150,000 letters won’t likely be lost on members of Congress as they consider issues like payment limits or increasing funds for conservation or nutrition.

And if you don’t think church members, including evangelicals, care about how U.S. policy affects poorer countries, consider how President Bush has tripled aid to Africa during his administration, an action even Democrats have attributed to pressure from evangelicals.

Farm groups may well want parishioners paying more attention to what’s in the sermon, not what’s in the church bulletin.

Philip Brasher is a reporter for The Des Moines Register. E-mail::pbrasher@dmreg.com

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