At this season, as winter segues into spring, we Jews -- even more so than usual -- have food on the brain. On February's full moon, we celebrated Purim, when tradition teaches us to prepare gifts of food for friends and neighbors, and to be especially generous in our gifts to the needy.
Yet Purim doesn't come close to Passover when it comes to food-think. Very soon we will be scrubbing our homes so that they're free of chametz, any trace of "self-inflating" yeast-based products. Rabbis will be inundated by questions about what food is "kosher for Passover" and what's not (a head's up: quinoa is). Before we know it, it will be time for the Seder, the heart of Passover, the powerful home-based ritual when we "tell the story" of our liberation from slavery thousands of years ago. The Seder, too, is centered on symbolic foods, the most powerful of which is, of course, the dry, flat, flour-and-water matzah.
Simple as it seems, though, matzah is paradoxical.
On the one hand, matzah evokes the oppression of slavery. "You shall eat ...the bread of poverty and persecution," says Deuteronomy 16:3, "for you departed the land of Egypt hurriedly."
On the other, because our ancestors were hurrying to freedom and there was no time for the dough to rise, matzah also symbolizes liberation. At the Seder, we hold up this simple food that manages to embody all at once persecution, liberation and the very essentials of life, and we speak words at the heart of the festival: "Let all who are hungry come and eat."
Yet as American Jews, it is difficult to imagine speaking those words with conviction this year. For it is our own laws that are preventing the true needs of the hungry to be met. The U.S. Farm Bill is a key obstacle blocking any change to a food aid system that has proved, time and again, to be more concerned with the bottom line of American business interests than with the goal of ending world hunger.
When we hear the words "Farm Bill," most of us probably think about corn, soybeans and family farms. But the Farm Bill is actually amazingly complex -- and the fate of many hungry people in the world depends upon what the bill dictates. What is vital to know is that the previous 2008 Farm Bill stipulated that food given in food aid must be grown by American farmers and shipped in American ships -- with the result that 53 cents of our food-aid-dollar has been going to markup, overhead, and the shipping companies. Even worse, as with the case of the rice we shipped to Haiti following the 2010 earthquake, rather than truly help the country get back on its feet, our policy helped to destroy local farming and local markets -- precipitating greater poverty, more starvation over the long-term.
The 2008 system has also been tragically inefficient: The USDA's own Local and Regional Food Aid Procurement Pilot Project (December 2012) proved that the U.S.-food/U.S.-ships system averaged 130 days to get food to the needy vs. 56 if the food was procured locally. Further, according to the report, if we buy the food locally or regionally rather than shipping it from thousands of miles away, local markets are stimulated to develop, local farmers become more productive, and investment in food processing increases.
The 2008 Farm Bill offered hungry people the bread of poverty.
Policies that support farmers in the developing world to grow enough food to feed their own local population, offer the bread of liberation.
After years of effort on the part of not-for-profit organizations, including, I'm proud to say, more than 20 Jewish organizations like AJWS and 18,000 signatories to the Jewish Petition for a Just Farm Bill, the 2012 Senate Farm Bill, along with new proposals on which the Obama administration is working, take important steps to correct the tragic waste in the present system.
But in 2012 the House of Representatives refused even to bring the Farm Bill to a vote. And now this year, those who support the status quo are already attempting to cut off debate before it begins on the President's new proposals for reform.
There are nearly 1 billion men, women and children suffering from chronic hunger around the globe -- meaning one-in-seven people on the planet. At the very least, we have a moral imperative to seriously consider proposals that would make every food aid dollar go further to feed those hungry people today and -- vitally -- create hunger-free countries tomorrow.
In the end, we Americans have one of three choices to make today:
We can say the hungry of the world are "not my problem" and turn our back on the human community, and thousands of years of religious tradition.
We can offer the hungry the bread of poverty, so that they remain chronically dependent, chronically poor.
Or we can choose the path of dignity and compassion, pressuring our Congress finally to pass food aid policies that turn the bread of poverty into the bread of liberation. Then all who are hungry may become free to truly come and eat.
Rabbi Miriyam Glazer is chair of the Literature, Communication & Media Department at American Jewish University, and author of Psalms of the Jewish Liturgy: A Guide to their Beauty, Power and Meaning.