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New report connects farmers, the hungry

A UMNS Report By Linda Bloom*
10:00 A.M. ET Jan. 5, 2012

Low-income families need better access to nutritious foods, says Bread for the World in its 2012 Hunger Report. Photo courtesy of Bread for the World/Laura Elizabeth Pohl.
Low-income families need better access to nutritious foods, says Bread for the World in its 2012 Hunger Report. Photo courtesy of Bread for the World/Laura Elizabeth Pohl.

Darin Greear of Riner, Va., loves farming so much that he uses income from his full-time job as a real estate agent to subsidize his passion.

Raised on a family farm, he leases out most of the 450 acres he still owns with his father but cultivates an alfalfa crop with a partner. A few years ago, he bought a one-pound pack of turnip seeds to plant along with the alfalfa, which led to plenty of turnips and a partnership with the United Methodist-related Society of St. Andrew.

The society uses a volunteer network to glean excess and unwanted produce from farmers. "We wound up picking around 60,000 pounds that year and distributing to the local food banks," Greear said.

Last year, he decided to devote six acres only to turnips - for the sole purpose of giving them away. Another 100,000 pounds of turnips were distributed.

Strengthening the connection between U.S. farmers and the need for more nutritious food is the focus of Bread for the World's 2012 Hunger Report, "Rebalancing Act: Updating U.S. Food and Farm Policies."

United Methodists have worked for years with Bread for the World, a Christian advocacy group dedicated to educating the public and urging U.S. decision-makers to end hunger at home and abroad. One of the most popular activities for congregations is the annual Offering of Letters to Congress.

This year's hunger report calls for improved policies that better meet the needs of farmers while providing a healthy food supply for all and making international food aid more effective by allowing for more local and regional purchase of food.

An accompanying Christian study guide allows people of faith to discuss how changes to U.S. food and farm policies can affect the poor and hungry while viewing the themes of the annual hunger report through a biblical lens.

"What we're trying to do is root their activism in their faith," explained Carter Echols, interim director of church relations at Bread for the World.

Poor nutrition a concern

Among the points made in the 2012 report:

  • Malnutrition has serious long-term consequences for both individuals and society, but the current U.S. food policy "has largely overlooked" critical dietary needs of certain populations.
  • The U.S. system of commodity payments to farmers does not adequately support smaller farms or those growing fruit and vegetables.
  • Poor and vulnerable people need to be protected through improvements in food aid and support for sustainable agriculture and government nutrition programs.
  • The agricultural guest worker program should be reformed to benefit both U.S. growers and poor small farmers in Mexico.

The Rev. James Gulley, advisor for agriculture and community development, United Methodist Board of Global Ministries, said Bread's 2012 report does a good job of touching on "some of the key issues that can help rebalance our (farm) policy."

Orchard owners in Virginia invite volunteers organized by the Society of St. Andrew to glean apples each fall. A web-only photo courtesy of the Society of St. Andrew.
Orchard owners in Virginia invite volunteers organized by the Society of St. Andrew to glean apples each fall. A web-only photo courtesy of the Society of St. Andrew.

One critical issue is moving the focus from big grain crops and extending support to smaller farmers "who are more specialized in the things we need to produce more and make more affordable," he said.

Linking a revised agriculture policy to what used to be known as the food stamp program and is now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program could help improve nutrition for school lunches and other feeding programs, he added. Part of the 2008 farm bill, SNAP increased the commitment to federal food assistance programs by more than $10 billion over a 10-year period.

"Those policies we have in the states directly affect our foreign policy as well," Gulley said, noting that U.S. crop surpluses can undercut local food production in other countries.

In Haiti, for example - where Gulley is guiding earthquake recovery agricultural projects - a combination of trade agreements, politics and lack of a stable government structure has led to increased importation of U.S. rice. Instead of being about 80 percent self-sufficient in rice production, Haiti now must import the same amount, he said.

Gulley lauded the "Feed the Future" program, which is more sensitive to food producers around the world and the need to improve nutrition. The program's strategic plan for Haiti emphasizes food security and longer-term assistance to support and improve agriculture.

Feed the Future, the U. S. government's global hunger and food security initiative, is designed to help countries "transform their own agriculture sectors to grow enough food sustainably to feed their people."

Farm labor issues

Through education and advocacy, the church also must address immigration concerns related to farm policy. "Farm labor here needs to be legalized in a way that people can be here legally without threat of deportation and protected by laws, not exploited with low wages, no benefits, poor working conditions," Gulley said.

Anthony Flaccavento, founder of Appalachian Sustainable Development, sells his produce at the Abingdon Farmers Market in Abingdon, Va.   Photo courtesy of Bread for the World/Laura Elizabeth Pohl.
Anthony Flaccavento, founder of Appalachian Sustainable Development, sells his produce at the Abingdon Farmers Market in Abingdon, Va. Photo courtesy of Bread for the World/Laura Elizabeth Pohl.

John Marker, who runs a fourth- and fifth-generation family farm in Winchester, Va., understands that problem. Fruit and vegetables must be harvested by hand labor, so the lack of a viable guest-workers program for U.S. farmers means less produce or higher prices, he explained.

Marker-Miller Orchards, which has its own farm market, has been involved with the Society of St. Andrew for a dozen or so years for one simple reason, Marker said: "We knew we had apples on the ground that were going to waste."

Every fall weekend - and often during the week - the society's gleaners pick up some of the 24 varieties of apples grown at the farm. Gleaners also gather vegetables and peaches in the summer. Marker said he has planted extra winter squash just for the society and provided land so the society could plant turnips.

"I thank them," he said of the gleaners. "I'd like to see the fruit is utilized, but I can't afford labor to pick it up."

Marker, who delivers produce to a number of other fruit stands in the Virginia area, also noted that the trend toward local markets is encouraging to farmers. "We're cutting out a lot of the middle man and you're getting a better product at a cheaper price &ellipsis; and it's fresher."

Changing the system

The establishment of ongoing farmer's markets is one way in which local communities are making their own efforts to change the food system. Bread's 2012 hunger report offers other examples to follow.

"There are things you could do for your own family as well as congregational activities," Echols of Bread for the World said.

Hunger advocacy reflects both theological and geographic diversity, Echols noted. Urban residents, for instance, might focus more on city gardening or how to draw retail sources for fresh produce to inner-city areas.

Bread for the World study guide

A study guide, available by download or purchase, encourages local congregations to use Bread for the World's 2012 Hunger report for reflection and action. Each session includes a biblical reflection and questions; a summary of the report's themes; discussion questions; activities and an invitation to pray and act.

The 90-minute study sessions can be used as a group or as separate units. Many congregations find the study guide ideal for a six-week evening Lenten series, noted Bread staff member Carter Echols.

The themes, introduced in the first session, "are key to what we believe needs to happen" to make progress against hunger, she said. However, leaders can guide the sessions so that individual participants do not have to buy or read the entire report.

"We've tried to make it an easy way for people to make connections between God's story and the current political issues," Echols said.

- Linda Bloom

The Society of St. Andrew has salvaged fresh produce from American farms since 1983, delivering it to agencies that serve the poor.

Gleaning, the society points out, is the traditional biblical practice of gathering crops that otherwise would be left in the fields to rot or be plowed under after harvest. St. Andrew organizes tens of thousands of volunteers who annually collect more than 15 million pounds of fresh food. In most cases, that food is in the hands of hungry families within 48 hours.

Greear credits the gleaning network with getting his turnips distributed to food banks and those in need. All sorts of people pitch in to glean, including his parents, the neighbors and area middle school students who can pick up to 12,000 to 15,000 pounds on each field trip. "They can see that they're helping folks," he said.

Although he was reluctant to seek attention for the donations, publicity generated by an assistant in his real estate office "actually worked to get more volunteers," he said. "We get churches from all over the state."

He sees room for expansion and government support. Most farmers are land rich and cash poor, Greear pointed out, so a government program to pay farmers to set aside a bit of land for fruit and vegetables could work.

"Two or three acres here and there will produce thousands and thousands of people food," he said. "People might start thinking about it and try it out."

*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service multimedia reporter based in New York. Follow her at http://twitter.com/umcscribe.

News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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