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Kevin ClarkeMay 31, 2024
A woman carries food provided by U.S. Agency for International Development in Pajut, South Sudan, March 2017. (CNS photo/Nancy McNally, Catholic Relief Services)A woman carries food provided by U.S. Agency for International Development in Pajut, South Sudan, March 2017. (CNS photo/Nancy McNally, Catholic Relief Services)

The Weekly Dispatch takes a deep dive into breaking events and issues of significance around our world and our nation today, providing the background readers need to make better sense of the headlines speeding past us each week. For more news and analysis from around the world, visit Dispatches.

Two hunger-related events were notable this week. May 28 was World Hunger Day, an annual event meant to draw attention to the plight of the nearly 800 million people around the globe who, in a world of abundance, still confront chronic hunger each day.

And on May 24 in the United States, the Farm, Food, and National Security Act, also known as the 2024 Farm Bill, took a slight step (some might say stumble) toward passage when its markup was approved and moved out of the Republican-controlled House Agriculture Committee. Though the Farm Bill, which comes up for renewal every five years, focuses on U.S. agriculture and spending policy, its impact is global. The 2024 Farm Bill strongly influences commodity prices and humanitarian relief standards that will partly define what and how much economically vulnerable people here in the United States and around the world will have to eat over the next half decade.

A tractor drops grain into a truck during the wheat harvest on a farm in Shelbyville, Ky., June 29, 2021. Lawmakers on the House and Senate agriculture committees released their own dueling frameworks for the 2024 federal farm bill May 17, 2024. (OSV News Photo/Amira Karaoud, Reuters)
A tractor drops grain into a truck during the wheat harvest on a farm in Shelbyville, Ky., June 29, 2021. Lawmakers on the House and Senate agriculture committees released their own dueling frameworks for the 2024 federal farm bill May 17, 2024. (OSV News Photo/Amira Karaoud, Reuters)

The current Farm Bill, at $1.5 trillion over five years, represents the largest spending package in U.S. agricultural policy history—and just over 80 percent of the spending will be directed to the state-administered Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and other federal food-assistance programs for U.S. residents struggling to put dinner on their household tables during a period of rising food costs.

The Senate Agriculture Committee will weigh in next. With Senate Democrats pushing their priorities—among them, more spending on nutrition and climate change “guardrails” on conservation programs—and House G.O.P. members seeking reduced spending on nutrition but increases on farm subsidies, the bill will face more legislative horse-trading before it reaches President Biden’s desk. Election-year tensions will surely complicate negotiations around this must-pass legislation.

This year’s bill should have been approved by the end of 2023, but as is often the case with these 1,000-page legislative monsterpieces, Congress could not come to terms before time ran out, and a one-year continuation of the 2018 Farm Bill was approved instead.

Congress faces a formidable challenge, trying to balance subsidy programs that protect U.S. farmers with the realities of a vast interconnected global network of food delivery and consumption, Jim Ennis, executive director of Catholic Rural Life, acknowledges. But the U.S. church “hears the cry of the poor,” he says, whether that means among vulnerable people in our own nation or subsistence farmers and hungry people around the world who will be affected by the policies set by the 2024 Farm Bill.

In recent letters to Congress on the Farm Bill, U.S. bishops urged members to support programs that feed the hungry “both domestically and abroad” and the maintenance of a safety net for farmers “that ensures resources target small and moderate-sized family farms and vulnerable farmers, the well-being of rural communities, and sustainable stewardship of the land.” Joined by leaders of Catholic Relief Services, Catholic Rural Life, Catholic Charities USA and the National Council of the U.S. Society of St. Vincent de Paul, the U.S. bishops explicitly noted: “We cannot support a Farm Bill that makes cuts to SNAP, including cuts to future benefit amounts, or that weakens the efficacy of or access to this vital program.”

But the bill that passed the committee includes circuit breakers on SNAP spending that could mean $30 billion less in funding for nutrition programs over the next decade. Many House members have grown alarmed by the rising cost and reach of the nation’s food assistance programs, which benefited 6 percent of the U.S. population in 2001—about 17 million people—and last year were distributed to 13 percent, or 42 million people.

But the changes proposed by the House will mostly affect children, older adults and disabled people, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, and “could prevent SNAP benefits from keeping pace with the cost of a healthy, realistic diet over time, weakening SNAP’s effectiveness in reducing food insecurity and poverty.”

That policy would also encourage a persisting and socially costly U.S. phenomenon: being poor and eating poorly. The food-shopping choices sometimes encouraged by limits on SNAP can begin a lifetime of eating habits that are heavy on processed foods and low on fresh produce, and that translates into long-term health problems like obesity and diabetes.

Mr. Ennis urged Congress to retain conservation programs with “climate-smart requirements” that help small farmers stay on their land while preserving topsoil and preventing nitrogen runoff that contributes to climate change. Those programs face cuts, though they are even now oversubscribed, he says, meaning more farmers are seeking to join conservation programs than the U.S. agriculture budget allows.

He also hopes to see better targeted crop subsidy programs that do not pit farmers against each other but ensure that small farmers, especially Black farmers and farmers from other marginalized communities, are able to tap into some of the benefits that have in the past mostly gone to large agricultural operations. Though the long-term decline of independent farming seems to have bottomed out at about 2.2 million farms, there is still economic pressure for consolidation that has proved devastating to rural communities.

How does the U.S. Farm Bill factor in the dilemma of global hunger? U.S. agricultural subsidies influence commodity prices around the world. When those subsidies encourage disruptions in markets for food staples like corn or wheat, they can wipe out small farmers, producing hunger and rural dislocation as former subsistence farmers become migrants in search of work.

And the 2024 Farm Bill will have a more direct impact if it is passed in its current form. House Republicans hope to tag on stipulations on overseas hunger relief that will mean sourcing and shipping more food from the United States. Other changes reduce flexibility in crisis conditions to make food buys in local markets or provide cash disbursements directly to people struggling with hunger.

Bill O’Keefe, executive vice president for mission, mobilization and advocacy at Catholic Relief Services, says those changes will blunt the impact of the U.S. Food for Peace program, the nation’s primary global hunger relief effort administered through the U.S. Agency for International Development. In a letter to Congress this week, Mr. O’Keefe said, “We continue to support providing U.S. commodities in the international food assistance programs, but focusing exclusively on food distribution undermines how these multi-year programs fight hunger in communities globally.”

He explained in an email to America: “Each situation is different, [but] frequently, communities simply cannot access enough food because of war, persistent drought or other disaster. In those cases, U.S. food aid is absolutely necessary.”

But in other instances when “food is available locally, but at a price too high for the vulnerable people C.R.S. assists, providing cash so that local food can be provided to people allows us to reach more people while also stimulating local markets.”

“The House version of the Farm Bill would reduce our ability to use these local solutions,” he added.

Another aspect of the House markup requires the use of U.S. cargo haulers to move food relief. That may seem appealing in terms of offering a small boost to the U.S. economy, but Mr. O’Keefe says that apparent benefit comes with significant drawbacks for humanitarian actors trying to respond to emergency conditions, driving up costs and creating delays in food shipments.

He worries that the overall impact of these tweaks to the Farm Bill could mean that U.S. overseas food assistance will reach 2.3 million fewer people.

World Hunger Day on May 28 may have passed with little notice among many Americans, but the annual event, started in 2011 by The Hunger Project, was acknowledged by notable relief and development organizations, including Caritas Internationalis, the church agency for global humanitarian outreach. “We’re now almost a quarter of the way into a century when we said there would be no more famine, and yet on this World Hunger Day we remember all those who are living in famine in Gaza, in Sudan, in the east and Horn of Africa and across through the Sahel,” Alistair Dutton, the secretary general of Caritas Internationalis, said in a video statement.

He pointed out that a child dies of malnutrition somewhere in the world every 10 seconds. That amounts to more than three million children in the course of a year “dying for want of food or of a balanced diet so that they have the nutrients that they need.” “Hunger isn’t only about having food not to feel hungry,” he said. “It’s also about having a balanced diet that gives all the nutrition one needs to develop and thrive as a human being.” According to U.N. estimates, about 45 million children under 5 worldwide currently suffer from “wasting,” that is, they are losing flesh and muscle because they are not getting enough to eat.

Mr. Dutton called for more attention in the affluent world to the global problem of hunger and urged support for “local solutions” to the problem that help create “sustainable communities where everyone can thrive.”

Anti-hunger advocates say that this year’s perfect storm of conflict, economic shocks, climate extremes, and soaring seed and fertilizer prices are converging in an unprecedented hunger crisis. According to the United Nations World Food Program, 309 million people will face acute levels of food insecurity in 2024, and 42 million will confront famine conditions this year.

It is no shock to learn that armed conflict is propelling hunger in eight out of the top 10 nations and regions facing the most acute hunger. The U.N.’s World Food Program reports that 60 percent of the world’s hungry live in conflict zones, suggesting that a collateral benefit of a world at peace would be a world without acute hunger.

W.F.P. is sponsoring emergency responses to hunger in Afghanistan, Gaza, Syria, Yemen and Myanmar in the Middle East and Asia. In Africa, it is responding to acute hunger in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, the North East region of Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan, Ethiopia and across the Sahel region. Other hunger programs are addressing hunger in Ukraine and Haiti. Outbreaks of extreme violence in Darfur will likely mean adding Sudan to the list before long.

But beyond the most extreme crises, W.F.P. reports that 783 million people each day confront chronic hunger, “moderate” food insecurity that can mean frequently skipping meals. That everyday calamity results in childhood stunting that can have lifelong neurological consequences for children around the world who will never achieve their full mental and physical potential. That is especially shocking in a world that tolerates each day the equivalent of 1 billion meals in food waste.

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