Voices for Change

Advocacy ministries of the ELCA want to share stories and your voices about public policies and relevant advocacy issues that are of interest to you.

Issues facing the 67th session of the United Nations General Assembly

Posted on September 28, 2012 by Advocacy Ministries of the ELCA
The United Nations building in New York

The United Nations building in New York

By Dustin Wright, intern, Lutheran Office for World Community

As the staff at the Lutheran Office for World Community prepares for the arrival of presidents, prime ministers and other heads of state from around the world to speak at the 67th regular session of the United Nations General Assembly now underway, we think it’s important to let people know more about what issues will be taken up at the United Nations this year. To be sure, our world community faces many challenges, with the ongoing global economic crisis, continued violence and unrest related to the “Arab Spring,” and the daily lack of security for many people in some sub-Saharan African countries being only some of the most notable. However, in the face of such daunting problems stands the United Nations, working to foster peace, support sustainable development, and protect human rights on a global level.

While addressing the concerns of member states and observers in the General Assembly, a number of high-level meetings focusing on a variety of issues will be convened over the course of the next few months. The first two of these meetings will discuss how to strengthen the rule of law on both national and international levels and the other will take up efforts toward promoting sustainable energy for all of humanity. Other upcoming high-level meetings will deal with topics such as the Global Initiative on Education, granting greater global access to proper nutrition, countering nuclear terrorism and combating the spread of chemical weapons.

Another pressing issue at the United Nations, which will be apriority for this office over the next few years, is the upcoming deadline for reaching the Millennium Development Goals in 2015. Back in 2000, world leaders came together to set quantifiable goals for global development in eight areas; some have described the Millennium Development Goals as the world’s greatest promise. The ELCA both at home and through its international partners is working to help reach these goals through sustainable development, direct relief, education, and advocacy efforts. The good news is that according to United Nations’2012 Annual Report on the Millennium Development Goals, three targets for reducing extreme poverty, improving clean water access and helping people move out of urban slums, have already been met. There has been a great deal of progress in other areas as well, such as combating HIV and AIDS and working toward gender equality in access to primary education, but much remains to be done. For instance, there has been little success in areas such as reducing the maternal mortality rate. As the world inches closer to 2015, the United Nations is working to analyze successes and failures of the Millennium Development Goals program overall, and most importantly, beginning to discern what’s next after 2015. This past July, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon appointed members of a high-level panel to offer advice on the post-2015 development agenda. Work on this process is now ongoing throughout the United Nations system. 

So there you have it: a basic overview of issues facing the United Nations this year. The Lutheran Office for World Community will continue to follow these and other issues in order to engage the voices and actions of Lutherans in their ministries worldwide. Thanks so much!

Food and Community: a spiritual reflection

Posted on September 27, 2012 by Advocacy Ministries of the ELCA

We close the September edition of the “Advocating on the Road” series with this spiritual reflection.

By the Rev. Carol Jensen, co-chair of Faith Action Network of Washington State (successor to the Lutheran Public Policy Office)

Most Sunday afternoons during the summer months, you will find me at the Everett Farmers Market, a short distance from my home. The first time I saw the sign “WIC and Senior Farmers Market Checks Welcome Here” prominently displayed on the stalls, I have to admit a surge of pride. Lutherans in Washington played a key role in bringing this program to our state — ELCA members and congregations have been longtime advocates for these important programs. Even more exciting, however, was observing real people exchange these checks for the fresh vegetables and fruits grown by local farmers.

The Washington State Farmers Market Nutrition Program is a blessing to seniors, low income families, and the farmers seeking a living from the land, but it is also a blessing to the wider community. In part due to this program, our Farmers Markets have become places where people interact across the boundaries that often divide us from one another (e.g., age, race, class and rural/urban). The Farmers Market Nutrition Program checks are a small part of the markets’ economy, yet they help create a much more diverse community of participants than would occur without them.

In late August, the church concluded five weeks of gospel readings from John 6, beginning with Jesus feeding 5,000 people and continuing with Jesus’ commentary that he is the bread of life that can satisfy our deepest hunger for communion with God. These texts show us God’s desire for our material and spiritual well-being, and also for bringing us into relationship with God and with one another. In the sacramental meal, we receive the bread that is Christ’s body and we become Christ’s body in God’s world. We are entrusted with the mission not only to feed people but to bring people into relationship with one another.

The WIC and Seniors Farmers Market Nutrition Program is one particular way for us as taxpayers to serve the mission of God to feed the world as well as to build diverse, interdependent communities. Through Christ, God breaks down the walls that are between us. Picture a grandmother living on Social Security, a single mom with two toddlers in a stroller, a Spanish-speaking farmer from the Yakima Valley, an engineer from The Boeing Company, a man in a wheel chair all gathered around the cherries and cucumbers that were sustainably grown in local orchards and fields. It is a scene to remind us that we are fed by the bounty of God’s earth and the relationships that bind us together with God and one another.

Policy connecting growers and consumers

Posted on September 26, 2012 by Advocacy Ministries of the ELCA

We continue the September edition of the “Advocating on the Road” series with this piece, examining how federal policy affects our food, our neighbors, and our communities.

By Mary Minette, director for environmental education and advocacy, ELCA Washington Office

This month, the “Advocating on the Road” blog series explored a program that combines support for farms and farming communities with efforts to reduce hunger and improve nutrition among low income families. The Farmers Market Nutrition Programs in Washington state are funded by state and federal dollars and represent a new approach to food policy — one that looks at our food systems as a whole, rather than as disparate pieces. These programs support not only those who grow food, but also those who eat food, and perhaps most importantly, these programs pay attention to the systems and communities that connect growers and consumers.

The Washington state Farmers Market Nutrition Programs reflect a new direction in federal farm policy that began with the 2008 Farm Bill with an effort to help more farmers markets process the electronic benefit transfer cards that states use to distribute nutrition benefits such as the Women, Infant, and Children nutrition (WIC) and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP — formerly known as food stamps). The 2008 Farm Bill coupled these electronic benefit transfer initiatives with efforts to encourage new farmers markets in underserved communities, where access to fresh food is limited. The 2008 Farm Bill set aside 10 percent of the funds allocated to the Farmers Market Promotion Program to support the use of electronic benefit transfers at farmers markets and community-supported agriculture enterprises. By 2011, 2,400 farmers markets nationwide were authorized to accept electronic benefit transfers, and that number continues to grow.

The expansion of farmers markets into new communities benefits more than low income families who receive food assistance. Farmers markets also benefit others in the community who now have increased access to fresh fruits and vegetables at their local farmers market, the farmers (who keep more of the consumer’s dollar by selling directly to those who eat what they grow), and the people who are hired to work in farmers markets and who work in businesses nearby that may see increased traffic on market days. In addition, there are the less easily measured benefits to the health of communities amid growing concerns among public health professionals about poor nutrition and obesity, particularly among our children and youth.

The 2008 Farm Bill that made this possible is due to expire in less than one week (on Sunday, September 30). Although the United States Senate passed a bill in early summer that would renew the Farmers Market Promotion Program — and with it the electronic benefit transfers program for WIC and SNAP recipients — leadership in the House of Representatives has so far been unwilling to allow a floor vote on a House farm bill. Absent a new farm bill, the House and Senate must vote to extend the current bill or many farm and food programs will expire — small, new and innovative programs, such as the Farmers Market programs, are particularly vulnerable to being cut and eliminated as lawmakers argue over declining pots of federal dollars and large programs, including SNAP and traditional farm supports, take up the lion’s share of the smaller amounts that remain. The House left for recess this past Friday without passing either a new farm bill or extending current legislation; they plan to return after the election for a lame duck session.

Also, last week the House of Representatives passed a six-month Continuing Resolution to fund the federal government until the end of March 2013, which failed to provide extended funding for a number of farm conservation programs. Through this exclusion, the House’s Continuing Resolution removed these farm conservation programs from the “baseline” of funding that will be available when Congress finally turns its attention to a new farm bill. This lower baseline means that if these conservation programs are to continue under a new bill, there will need to be cuts in other programs — perhaps including the Farmers Market Promotion Program and the electronic benefit transfers program.

We’ve heard this month how the policy written, voted upon, and signed into law in our state and national capitols deeply affects the lives of parents, children, seniors, and farmers. These policy initiatives, like the Farmers Market Nutrition Programs in Washington state, are more than line items of a budget or words in the pages of a mammoth bill. Strong policy can have a direct, positive impact on our lives and the lives of our neighbors — strong policy can help us build more vibrant and hunger-free communities.

 

 

Fresh and Local Food for All

Posted on September 24, 2012 by Advocacy Ministries of the ELCA

Healthy Food & Food Systems 2We continue the “Advocating on the Road” series, exploring hunger-free and vibrant communities in Washington state. 

Kurt Tonnemaker is a familiar face at farmers markets around the Seattle area. Each week, Tonnemaker Brothers, Inc. packs and sells produce — peaches, cherries, apples, pears, plums, peppers and more — from Kurt’s family’s farm in Royal City, Wash., and travels to as many as 18 farmers markets in a single weekend. 

The produce Kurt sells is grown as sustainably as possible on land inherited from Kurt’s paternal grandfather, a horticulture extension agent in Eastern Washington. “My grandfather’s family moved from Nebraska in 1903. In their move west, they brought produce with them in a wagon. I guess you can say this passion runs in the family,” Kurt says. “When he retired from extension work in 1962, my grandfather bought this land from a Korean War veteran, and the farm has been in the family ever since. My brother, Kole, started in 1980 and expanded the varieties of what we grow. I joined in 1992 and helped develop our business from two or three farmers markets to many more.”

Kurt’s passion for his work shines through to those he meets, as he explains why he values this work. “One of the most important aspects of my job is that I get to help reconnect people to who grows their food. Cherries don’t just come out of a bag, you know,” Kurt jokes. “One hundred years ago everyone either knew or was a farmer. Now, farmers are less than 2 percent of the population. Naturally, people are far removed from who grows their food, and they don’t eat as much fresh food anymore. At the farmers markets, we can help reconnect our customers.”

“Farmers markets sometimes get a bad rap because the prices are higher — it does cost more to pack and handle just-picked, ripe foods,” Kurt notes. “We do sell certified organic produce, and we try to price our stuff so everyone can buy it. Good, fresh food should not be just for the rich.”

Kurt’s family’s work of growing and selling affordable, quality foods to a diverse customer-base is supported in part by the state’s Famers Market Nutrition Program for low-income and senior Washingtonians. The program is an initiative that operates using federal and state funding. It allows seniors and those who receive WIC (Women, Infants and Children) nutrition program benefits to use their benefits for fresh produce at farmers markets, sold by producers like Kurt.

During the 2012 legislative session Kurt joined Lutheran advocates at the state capitol in Olympia to express the importance of these programs to their lawmakers. “We understand that money is tight in the state budget, but we needed to tell them the money for this program is critically important. I helped tell our officials that when money is sent to the Farmers Market Nutrition Programs, it goes back to the farmer and back to our state. By paying the farmers, the WIC and senior customers are getting fresher produce and the money generated vitalizes our local and state economy,” Kurt explains.

“The senators and representatives are excited to talk to people who are benefited by these programs. They’re also trying to make the program as streamlined as possible, so it’s good to talk to farmers to see if where they’re spending the money is worth it.”

“I had to make sure my voice is heard”

Posted on September 14, 2012 by Advocacy Ministries of the ELCA

We continue the Washington state leg of the “Advocating on the Road” series…

Tammy Nguyen is a second generation Vietnamese American and a single mother, whose life’s work grew out of what she experienced while receiving WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) nutrition benefits. When Tammy learned she could redeem WIC benefits at farmers markets (through the WIC Farmers Market Nutrition Program) in her state, she started exploring farmers markets in Seattle with her children. “I knew it would be so hard to feed my child nutritiously because I didn’t make enough money on my own. Through the WIC program, I was able to feed my children the healthy food from the farmers markets. So often, this type of eating is a luxury — low income people can’t usually buy fresh produce grown locally.”

After she and her children transitioned off the WIC program, Tammy began to focus her energies on ensuring that other low income children had access to nutritious food. She began working with a local nonprofit, Got Green, a grassroots group in the Seattle area led by young adults and people of color that promotes an equitable, green economy.

Got Green recently surveyed low income women and women of color in Seattle on a variety of issues, and learned that 40 percent of them put access to healthy food as their first priority. Tammy came away from this process thinking, “How can we put more food dollars into low-income families’ pockets?” and, reflecting on her own experiences, advised that Got Green make the preservation of Washington’s WIC Farmers Market Nutrition Program an advocacy priority. 

The Farmers Market Nutrition Program is a state and federally funded nutrition program that helps provide low-income WIC households and senior citizens access to locally grown fresh fruit and vegetables. Lutheran advocates in Washington are longtime supporters of the Farmers Market Nutrition Programs because of the critical role they play in alleviating hunger in the state, in supporting local farmers and growers, and in stimulating the local economy.

In the 2012 session of the Washington state legislature, the Farmers Market Nutrition Programs were on the block to be eliminated due to the harsh budget climate in the state. “We worked to organize throughout the community and we wrote to our legislators to tell them how important the program was to Washington families,” Tammy describes. “And we brought women who had been served by the program to Olympia to speak to elected officials and their staff. They needed to hear directly from families how devastating the cuts would be.”

Assisted by Lutheran advocates within the Faith Action Network in Washington, the Got Green group met with various officials and left informational material behind in the offices of staff with whom they were unable to meet. “The meetings went very well and, ultimately, the program was saved and it still exists today. At the time we didn’t know what would happen and we were so relieved when the program made it out of both the State House and Senate budgets, then into the final budget the governor signed,” she said.

These victories cause Tammy to reflect on why she became involved in advocacy in her home state. “I was so tired of seeing lawmakers bypass us — low-income, immigrant families. In order to reform this pattern, I had to be at the front. I had to get my community to move with me and I had to make sure my voice is heard by our lawmakers.”

In Washington state and in Washington, D.C., the decisions by lawmakers affect the vibrancy of our farms and communities, as well as the ability for everyone to obtain healthy food.  Click here to learn more about how to urge our federal lawmakers for strong food and farm policy now.

Washington state’s “win-win” programs

Posted on September 10, 2012 by Advocacy Ministries of the ELCA

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scene from the University District Farmers Market in Seattle

Lutherans and other Christians in Washington understand that strong public policy can help ensure that all people in our state have access to fresh food. Many of us are longtime advocates of the WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) Farmers Market Nutrition Program and Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program, important government-funded initiatives that provide low-income WIC households and seniors access to locally grown fresh fruit and vegetables.

Funded by federal and state dollars, the Farmers Market Nutrition Programs allow WIC and senior nutrition program participants to redeem their benefits at farmers markets throughout the state of Washington. In doing so, the use of farmers markets, farm stores, and community supported agriculture programs is expanded and the sale of Washington-grown fruits, vegetables, and herbs increases. This comprehensive model is a “win-win” for our state because it helps alleviate hunger and improves health for participating low-income Washingtonians, it supports Washington growers, and it helps boost our local economy and create jobs. In fact, nine out of every ten dollars invested in this program by the government or spent by a participating consumer stays in the local Washington economy.

Here in Washington, members of the Faith Action Network (a faith-inspired statewide partnership, which grew out of the former Lutheran Public Policy Office) have been leaders in the state capital advocating for expanding the program, securing the electronic benefits transfer card system in our farmers markets, and — in the past few years — working to preserve a budget line for it in the state budget. Lutherans and other people of faith throughout the state are educating their congregations on these programs, encouraging growers and WIC and senior beneficiaries to testify at committee hearings and meeting with legislators. Advocates for the programs also urge their legislators to visit one of the 180 local farmers markets in approximately 80 communities and see the program’s direct benefits (there are 180 such markets in Washington in about 80 cities/towns/neighborhoods).

Washington has a $32 billion two-year budget, which includes $100,000 for the Farmers Market Nutrition Programs. This relatively small sum in turn leverages $900,000 of federal funding for the programs. Like many states, Washington faces severe budgetary problems and important programs — like the Farmers Market Nutrition Programs — risk being cut. Lutheran advocates and other people of faith throughout Washington work to defend this hugely important and effective program from elimination. In essence, the grassroots voices — including those from our ELCA congregations — will be crucial in ensuring the continuity of this “win-win” program. Lutherans and other people of faith need to continue to speak out in protection of this program that helps struggling households with young children and seniors to purchase locally grown fruit and vegetables that, in turn, supports local growers and the local economy. 

I give thanks to God for our church’s commitment to alleviating hunger through advocacy supported by ELCA World Hunger. In Washington state and in Washington, D.C., the decisions by lawmakers affect the vibrancy of our farms and communities, as well as the ability for everyone to obtain healthy food.  Click here to learn more about how to urge our federal lawmakers for strong food and farm policy now. 

From Zambia to Washington, D.C: Reflections on HIV and AIDS

Posted on September 7, 2012 by Advocacy Ministries of the ELCA

By Chloe Strasser

As a young daughter of an ELCA missionary and a global health professional in Zambia, I grew up in a community that was forced to confront the crushing realities of HIV and AIDS every day.  Zambia is one of the poorest nations in the world and has one of the highest HIV and AIDS infection rates in southern Africa. Poverty, gender-based violence, lack of education and stigma precipitate high infection rates, AIDS-related deaths and AIDS orphans. 

I have seen members of my own church severely and visibly ill, villagers struggling to get antiretroviral medication they need to survive, and people denying themselves life-saving treatment to avoid the stigma too often attached to people living with HIV or AIDS.  Even traffic in my neighborhood was a reminder of the pandemic; my family’s weekend commutes in Lusaka, Zambia, were regularly disrupted by the floods of funeral cars en route to the cemetery where mourners grieved the loss of friends and family members to the virus.  I have volunteered with and served young generations affected and infected with HIV and AIDS for years.  I volunteered with children orphaned by HIV and AIDS, many of whom had themselves been infected with the virus at birth. 

Now a student at the University of California, Irvine, and an advocacy summer intern in the ELCA Washington Office in Washington, D.C., I experienced traffic of a different sort: our nation’s capital bustling with the 20,000 visitors from around the world attending the International AIDS Conference and coalescing under a much more hopeful banner – to work toward an AIDS-Free Generation. Thanks to technological and political advances, this hope is more promising than I ever imagined as I was caring for this young, affected generation in southern Africa. Of course, this goal of an AID-Free generation will only be met if countries, donors and civil society around the world join together to garner political will and increase financial investment in treatment, prevention, care and stigma reduction.

I saw this political will being cultivated this summer in the crowded auditoriums at the International AIDS Conference and in the halls of Congress, where I met with Senate and House of Representatives staff who are global health experts and are working to reallocate U.S. budget commitments so more money is dedicated to global health. I was encouraged to learn that many senators and representatives do care about those affected by HIV and AIDS around the world.

Yet I still feel as though the faces of the HIV and AIDS virus – those orphaned children, abused women and infected families – those faces that are a part of my daily life in Zambia – are being forgotten. The International AIDS Conference’s  optimism to “turn the tide” on AIDS was countered by a troubling decrease in funding from countries all over the world, including the United States, to the Global Fund and other programs that fight HIV and AIDS. And I’ve already seen the ramifications of these funding reductions in Zambia, where AIDS-related programs are being cut, staff experts laid off, and essential heath supplies diminishing. 

As a Lutheran, I will not be complacent in this fight against HIV and AIDS. I will continue to urge the U.S. government to sustain and strengthen funding for strong, comprehensive HIV and AIDS programs. I will continue to heed Jesus’ call to serve, to heal and to care for those in need without judgment. I am thankful that I have had the opportunity to join with people from all over the world at the International AIDS Conference to fight the pandemic. And I am thankful for this global opportunity to turn the tide on HIV and AIDS. I pray that the young AIDS-affected generation for whom I have cared may be Zambia’s last.