U.S. Bishops Call for New Farm Bill That Prioritizes Needy Families

The bishops asked Congress to prioritize both domestic and international hunger.

Lush green crops growing near the side of the road.
Lush green crops growing near the side of the road. (photo: Unsplash)

The United States Catholic bishops are urging Congress to prioritize programs that feed needy families, support small-family farmers, and fund rural development in the 2023 Farm Bill, which legislative committees are currently crafting.

The farm bill, which Congress renews every few years, is a comprehensive bill that normally includes farming subsidies, funding for food assistance programs, conservation initiatives, and rural development funding, among other things. The last farm bill passed in 2018 and much of its initiatives expire in 2023.

In a letter to the leadership of the House Committee on Agriculture and the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) reminded lawmakers of Pope Francis’ comments that “hunger is criminal, food is an inalienable right” when asking lawmakers to prioritize efforts to feed families.

The letter was signed by Bishop Borys Gudziak, archbishop of the Ukrainian Catholic Archeparchy of Philadelphia and chair of the USCCB’s Committee on International Justice, and Bishop David Malloy of the Diocese of Rockford, Illinois, who serves as chair of the Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development.

“The cost of food has increased significantly due to inflation,” the letter noted. “This puts particular stress on the poorest families to get enough to eat and be healthy. In this environment, nutrition programs that support the basic right to food should be strengthened, not weakened.”

The bishops asked Congress to prioritize both domestic and international hunger. 

For domestic food assistance programs, the USCCB urged lawmakers to strengthen the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) by updating its calculations to reflect rising food prices. It also asked Congress to update medical deductions, increase benefits for households with young children, and end the cap on the Excess Shelter Deduction.

The bishops encouraged lawmakers to expand SNAP eligibility by raising the level to 130% of the federal poverty level and to allow states to use their state median income level rather than the federal poverty level. 

The letter also asked lawmakers to strengthen the Emergency Food Assistance Program with additional funding. The letter urged lawmakers to increase access to fresh fruit and vegetables at food banks and other programs.

For international food assistance, the USCCB asked Congress to expand the loan repayment program to support local ownership of school meal programs and increase flexibility for nonemergency Food for Peace activities. 

“In this year’s Farm Bill, we encourage you to prioritize sufficient funding of programs that feed hungry families, both here and abroad, while opposing efforts to weaken the efficacy of or access to these programs,” the letter read.

Regarding farm subsidies, the USCCB asked Congress to “protect against cuts to the USDA that would impact its ability to place staff in rural communities to help farmers diversify crops, get access to new markets, and receive assistance on technical issues.” Because of budget constraints, the bishops urged lawmakers to prioritize small and moderate-sized farms and groups that have been historically marginalized.

The bishops urged lawmakers “to encourage rural development and promote the culture and well-being of rural America” through various government programs. This includes infrastructure investments and integrating climate change mitigation into rural development policies.

To promote conservation, the USCCB asked lawmakers to give special attention to programs that focus on stewardship of working and retired lands, and easements and partnerships. 

“Conservation programs should also include solutions to address carbon capture, climate mitigation, adaptation, food waste, and ensuring access for all these programs to applicants who experienced historic disparities and discrimination, especially Black farmers,” the bishops wrote. 

“Now is a critical time to hear both the cry of the poor and the cry of the earth, to consider the needs of the hungry, of underserved farmers, and of rural communities,” the letter reads. “We look forward to working with you as you shape the 2023 Farm Bill.”

Catholic Relief Services, Catholic Charities USA, Catholic Rural Life, and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul joined the USCCB in signing the letter.