Washington — Entering a new field of advocacy, Jewish groups played a leading role in ensuring the passage of the Farm Bill, which could increase federal funding for nutrition programs as well as for farming subsidies.
Congress gave the bill its final approval May 15, and although President Bush has made clear that he will not sign it into law, supporters of the legislation believe they have the majority to easily override the veto.
According to Jewish lobbyists on Capitol Hill, the active involvement of Jewish organizations in promoting the Farm Bill demonstrates a growing interest in fighting poverty and hunger and the rising profile of the Jewish community on issues relating to social justice. Efforts, which once were focused only on the local level, have shifted to the national front, as poverty rises and food becomes less available.
The cost of the Farm Bill is estimated at $289 billion over five years, with two-thirds of the sum spent on nutrition programs, including food stamps and food pantries. A third of the funding is set to support American farmers facing a competitive global market. When voting on the bill, lawmakers stressed that the latest hikes in prices of food worldwide make it timely.
The Jewish Council for Public Affairs was among the first to pick up on the legislation and turn it into one of its main lobbying goals on Capitol Hill. Earlier this year, the group launched a campaign against poverty. During the High Holy Days, it set a “food stamp challenge” in which politicians and communal leaders were urged to live for a week on a budget based on the food stamp allowance. Even so, for most other Jewish activists, the issue remained largely off the radar.
“This was entirely new for our community,” said Hadar Susskind, JCPA’s Washington director. “This time, our effort really moved votes on Capitol Hill.” Even less expected was the new political situation the Farm Bill brought about.
Jewish groups — which tend to come from the left to lobby swing voters on social issues — found themselves this time focusing their lobbying efforts on progressive and liberal lawmakers who opposed the farming subsidies the bill provides.
The effort was joined by major national Jewish groups, including United Jewish Communities and the Reform movement’s Religious Actions Center, and was also pushed forward by local Jewish activists countrywide, who called their lawmakers and urged them to approve the bill.
“They didn’t expect to hear from us on this issue,” said Nancy Kaufman, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations C ouncil of Greater Boston.