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A Unique Educational Experience – “Global Poverty: Economics and Theology in Conversation”

Suzanne C. Toton, Ed.D., a professor of theology and religious studies, is team-teaching a course with Kishor Thanawala, Ph.D., a professor of economics and statistics, entitled, “Global Poverty: Economics and Theology in Conversation.” Seven students of the 50 students enrolled in the course elected to participate in a one-credit Theology Legislative Advocacy Practicum on International Food Aid.

Throughout the semester, Catholic Relief Services, the third-largest distributor of U.S. food aid overseas, resourced and interacted with students in the course. “CRS provided materials and educated and engaged our entire class 50 students in conversation through videoconferences and audio conferences,” Toton said. “The practicum culminated in seven student delegates meeting with their legislators and their aides on Capitol Hill on Friday, April 11, to discuss important provisions on the U.S. international food aid program that need to be made in the Farm Bill that is being voted on this week.” Click here to view photos from the day in Washington, D.C.
This practicum took the class' participation in the CRS Global Solidarity Network Study eBoard curriculum Web pilot on Food Security a step further by offering students the opportunity to test their education by action, Toton explained. Villanova University is part of a unique pilot project with Catholic Relief Services (CRS) and its three other higher education partner institutions: Cabrini College, Seattle University, and Santa Clara University. The pilot is called the Global Solidarity Network (GSN): A CRS and Catholic Higher Education Study eBoard Program. It makes use of modern information and communications technology to make education on issues such as migration, hunger, HIV/AIDS, and other topics more real and available to students and faculty in the United States.

Toton said that CRS' professional lobbyists briefed students on Capitol Hill before they visited their legislators and debriefed them after their visits. “What made this experience even more unique is that a communication class at Cabrini College also participated in the same practicum,” Toton said. “The videoconferences and visits to the Hill were scheduled so that students in both institutions could participate.” CRS is planning to replicate this model at other universities.

Toton explained that this course, combined with its practicum, is quite unique in higher education. “I don't know of any educational initiative quite like this in the country -- a legislative advocacy practicum, which is integrated into the curriculum in two very different higher educational institutions and is resourced by a major international non-governmental agency that develops skills for civic engagement on an issue of moral significance for institutions informed by the Catholic social tradition.”

By Alexandra Jaskula
Reprinted With Permission of The Villanova Times

The Farm Bill, which includes the United States’ Food for Peace Program, is due for reauthorization by April 18. The Food for Peace program is the largest U.S. government international assistance program. It includes both emergency and non-emergency funding for food assistance.

The amount of the federal budget allocated to this program has remained at $1.2 billion despite the rising cost of food due to factors including the increased use of bioethanol fuels and rising oil prices. This means that the amount of food aid reaching countries in need has not merely stagnated at an insufficient level; it has increasingly declined.

Last Friday, seven Villanova students from Dr. Toton and Dr. Thanawala’s joint economics and theology Global Poverty course traveled to Washington, D.C., to lobby their Senators or House representatives about their stance on the farm bill, particularly regarding non-emergency funding for international food aid. In particular, they requested that $600 million, or ½ of the program’s funding, be placed in a “safebox” for non-emergency funding. Non-emergency programs are sustainable economic development programs that are carried out by organizations including Catholic Relief Services, World Vision, and CARE that are designed to increase food security in nations suffering from chronic hunger.

Organizations including Catholic Relief Services, which has a partnership with Villanova University, respond to invitations by governments to provide their relief services in that country. CRS explains that they provide both emergency and non-emergency food aid programs: “Emergency food aid programs include responding to the nutritional needs of people who are suffering from natural disasters, wars, or famine. Non-emergency food aid programs use food as a long-term development tool to support education, agriculture, and health. CRS uses multi-year development programs to address the root causes of food insecurity.”

Currently, 850 million people in the world are chronically hungry. 24,000 die everyday of hunger-related causes and 75% of them are children. While this number remains constant, funds are increasingly taken away from non-emergency solutions for ending chronic hunger in order to fund emergency relief services.

Laura Arendacs, one of the Villanova students who participated in the lobbying experience, pointed out that, “These long-term developmental programs are self-sustaining and in the event of an emergency, they are already on the ground which reduces response times and costs dramatically.” Therefore, it is in the best interest of both emergency and non-emergency relief services that sustainable programs are established in countries that are at high risk for emergency hunger situations. The Bill Emerson Humanitarian Trust exists for emergency food relief; however, it has not been replenished in recent years. Therefore, in addition to adding a “safebox” provision to the Farm Bill, they also suggested that funding is budgeted for this trust in case of the need for additional emergency relief. While Senators may request emergency supplemental funding for food assistance programs, by the time the amount is agreed upon, programs have been forced to shut down and people have died of starvation.

Personally, I met with the foreign relations aide of Senator Robert Casey from Pennsylvania and with Utah’s Senator Bob Bennett. Because we visited D.C. on a Friday afternoon, Senator Casey’s aide and Senator Bennett himself were able to meet with us for ample time to discuss the issues surrounding food security and the proposed actions that we, as constituents, would like our senators to consider.

Pennsylvania’s Senator Casey recently spearheaded a letter to the Senate Appropriations Committee to increase funding for international food assistance in the Emergency Supplemental Appropriations Bill. Therefore, the focus of our conversations was to ask him to consider the “safebox” provision of the Farm Bill so that funding for non-emergency situations will not be overlooked despite the lack of media attention that 24,000 people dying daily warrants due to the problem of chronic hunger. The aide was receptive to the proposition stating that it was seemingly in line with Senator Casey’s concern for food assistance as a humanitarian as well as a national security issue.

Laura Arendacs was able to share her experience on a Villanova Winter Service Break trip to South Africa as part of the discussion. She explained, “To me chronic hunger is more than just statistics. Last December I spent two weeks volunteering at a home for children infected and affected with HIV/AIDS in Capetown, South Africa…. In order for the antiretroviral medicines to be effective in combating this pandemic, a nutritious supplemental diet is absolutely critical. Long term developmental programs are key in this respect. One of the things that shocked me the most during my visit in South Africa was the typical lunch of the children: one half-rotted hard boiled egg. That hardly gives the children the energy they need to fight this disease and lead productive lives.” Due to this experience, she realizes that to each of these people, their chronic hunger is an emergency situation, and therefore, requires increased funding for long term economic development programs.

During our meeting with Senator Bob Bennett of Utah, he clearly stated to us that he will not support the Farm Bill due to the fact that it contains farm subsidies, which he no longer believes to be necessary. However, he was still very willing to discuss the issue of food security with us. He considers government corruption to be the primary cause of poverty, and he hopes that the bioengineered seeds which were genetically modified to make them drought and pest resistant can be a viable solution for food crises in countries including those in Africa.

Beginning this experience, I underestimated my influence as an informed voter and student. By presenting both our research and our personal reasoning to our elected representatives or their aides, I found that they were very attentive listeners and took the time to write down notes and ask further questions on points with which they were unfamiliar. Our advisers from CRS reminded us that our elected officials are indeed in office to serve us, and are therefore, very willing to consider the concerns and requests of their constituents.

 Click here to view photos from the day in Washington, D.C.

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