RYAN TAYLOR: The moral calling and practical work of food and agriculture

I spent the beginning of this month thinking of my father, a WW2 combat veteran of the Pacific who spent his 25th birthday on an LST, a tank landing ship, bound for Japan and a land invasion. His birthday was August 9, the same day the second atom bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. The invasion never happened. He became part of the occupation of Japan before returning to his North Dakota ranch.

I was hungry and you gave me something to eat.

He didn’t talk much about his service. One of a few things he shared about his time serving in the Philippines and New Guinea was how some of the indigenous children living close to where he was stationed in New Guinea would rummage through the garbage from the army camp, trying to salvage scraps of food to satisfy their hunger. That stark image of hunger bothered him. A lot. He returned to North Dakota, raised a family in a home that always had plenty to eat, and produced food for many more beyond his own wife and children.

Many of us have never seen the kind of hunger that he witnessed half a world away. Though today’s hunger differs from that time and place, we do live next to hunger in our own communities. It’s in the shadows, often, but it is there. We have, in this country, however, created a program to help alleviate domestic hunger—a safety net, a food insurance policy of sorts for families and individuals who find themselves struggling to make ends meet and get the nutrition they need. It’s called SNAP, but many of us relate to the old name of ‘food stamps’.

SNAP is an anti-hunger program that has done what it was designed to do—help people eat when they need the assistance. Most people are on it for a short time until they get through a tough spot in life. In fact, half of those new to the SNAP program will leave it within 9 months as they become more financially stable. Three-fourths of the 45 million people in the U.S. who benefit from SNAP are children, the elderly or people with a disability.

Not one of us can predict when an unexpected life-changing event such as losing a job, a heart attack or catastrophic illness will happen to us. Thankfully, SNAP is there as a safety net when it’s needed because of the way it is set up to respond to disasters, whether they are a family’s personal troubles, or larger city or state disasters, like floods or droughts.

SNAP supplements the work done by people through benevolent food pantries, churches and other non-profits. Bread for the World, a faith based organization started by ecumenical ministers in 1974, has calculated if the proposed Trump budget cuts to the most vulnerable were passed by Congress (including SNAP and Medicaid) every single one of the nation’s individual religious church congregations would have to raise an additional $714,000 each year to shoulder the entire yoke of caring for those food and medical needs. My hometown Lutheran congregation struggles to have the offering plate meet the minimal expenses of our church in the summer, much less ask the people in the pews (and no, we don’t have any billionaires) for another $714,000 each year.

On the subject of churches and congregations, many of us have moral reasons for supporting a working program that helps alleviate hunger in America. In the book of Matthew, the gospel known for ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me,’ says in verse 35, “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat.” I, along with many other North Dakotans, believe, as a society, that it’s a moral and just calling to feed people and work to end hunger.

Politically, and pragmatically, those of us in production agriculture, and our communities who depend on agriculture for our local economy, know the importance of the federal Farm Bill as a safety net, and insurance policy to assure the continuation of family farming as a business and a way of life. For decades, rural and urban senators and representatives have cooperated to pass a Farm Bill that brings together growers and eaters. Longtime ag journalist and reporter of Farm Bills, Mikkel Pates, sees numerous pitfalls in passing a Farm Bill before the current one expires in 2018 if the drumbeats of a $193 billion Trump budget cut to SNAP resonates with House Republicans, or if other drastic cuts or separation of the SNAP nutrition title itself occurs in House budget deliberations.

It’s hard to imagine what, if anything, gets done in Washington, DC, these days, given the current chaos and elected institutions that are just one tweet away from the next hair-on-fire moment. Those of us in agriculture need to work at paving a path forward for a 2018 Farm Bill, a path wide enough for those of us who grow food and those who are nourished by it. That may mean reaffirming our calling as food producers to provide food for the hungry and maybe even asking the people in the pew next to us on Sundays to help advocate and alleviate hunger as we are called to do.

Ryan Taylor, state senator from 2002 to 2012, lifelong rancher and agriculturalist