Sister Soil Cultivates Zeal for Regenerative Agriculture at Bread for the World

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The Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange are no strangers to Bread for the World. This energetic congregation of nuns in Southern California has been conducting Offerings of Letters for decades.  

Sister Sara Tarango is particularly interested in Bread’s 2023 Offering of Letters on improving the farm bill. She is known affectionately around the motherhouse as Sister Soil because of her impassioned presentations on regenerative agriculture. Regenerative agriculture may be a new term to many, but in essence, it is the simple, time-honored concept of soil preservation. Hence the nickname Sister Soil.

Sister Soil wants to make many more people aware that cropland soil in the United States is eroding 10 times faster than it is being replenished. Nutritious food depends on healthy soil that can supply seeds and, ultimately, the crops grown with sufficient quantities of all the essential nutrients. A carrot or an apple grown on a U.S. farm today is less nutritious than one produced just a few decades ago.

The U.S. soil health crisis is directly related to overreliance on chemical inputs in farming. Soil degradation is one serious problem caused by widespread use of artificial fertilizers and other inputs. Another is the emission of large quantities of nitrous oxide, one of the greenhouse gases that causes climate change.

Soil erosion is a global problem. Soil degradation is proceeding at such a fast rate that it calls into question whether the world will continue to be able to produce enough food for everyone.  

Part of Bread for the World’s collective campaign of farm bill advocacy is to encourage grassroots leaders such as Sister Sara to contribute to developing Bread’s farm bill policy platform.

David Gist, Bread’s organizer for California, met with the Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange in 2022, one of many preparatory farm bill listening sessions that Bread organizers held with grassroots leaders. According to Gist, “Sister Sara was by far the most interested and insightful participant, in part thanks to her training with Kiss the Ground.”

Kiss the Ground trains farmers in regenerative agricultural practices to apply in their fields, while activists are trained in advocating for policy change through legislation such as the farm bill. It has probably done more than any other U.S. organization to promote regenerative agriculture.

The training inspired Sister Sara to develop a tool kit for advocacy that she plans to share with other people of faith who are concerned about the environment. As she sees it, regenerative agriculture fits in well with Creation Care, an ecumenical framework embraced by many people of faith. We will have more to say about the Creation Care movement in an upcoming issue of Institute Insights.

In December 2022, Sister Sara came to Washington, D.C., for the launch of Bread’s farm bill policy platform.  The visit – her first to the nation’s Capital – included a meeting on Capitol Hill with her member of Congress, Rep. Lou Correa (D-CA-46).

It was his first time meeting with Sister Sara. However, as a longtime friend of the Sisters of St. Joseph, he was not surprised that she used the time available to explain why she’s concerned about soil degradation and then articulated other farm bill priorities identified by Bread’s collaborative process.

Although they too seldom receive the recognition they deserve, grassroots leaders such as Sister Sara Tarango are true Bread heroes, prodding the organization to identify and take action to achieve the bolder, more complex policy changes that are necessary to end hunger for good.

These leaders remind everyone at Bread that our mission calls for systems change in addition to strengthening individual federal programs.

It is not surprising that people working to address hunger in their local communities would see hunger as a problem rooted in the food system itself. Bread’s 2023 Farm Bill advocacy is making a similar case.

Todd Post is senior domestic policy advisor with Bread for the World.

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