“Jews for social justice is where I am coming from. Equal rights and equal access to the bounty of the earth is foundational,” Nora Saks said while explaining why she is a FoodCorps service member. FoodCorps is a new national service organization (funded by AmeriCorps and others) building school gardens and establishing “Farm to School” programs to address childhood obesity and food-related disease.
Fifty individuals in their 20’s and 30’s were chosen from over 1,200 applicants to serve in 2010-2011, FoodCorp’s pilot year. Among them are a number of young Jews, including Saks. She, as well as Leah Chapman, Emily Ritchie, Sarah Rubin and Erin Taylor, shared with the Jew and the Carrot why they are excited to work with schools in limited-resources communities with high obesity rates. All of them will be working with partnering local organizations to teach kids about healthy nutrition, build and work to sustain school gardens, and help school lunch programs procure healthy food from local farms.
It is just the beginning of the school year and a mere few weeks after the national FoodCorps orientation in Wisconsin, so the service members are only now setting up their various projects. However, each has a clear vision for the year ahead of them and strong reasons for participating in the program.
For all of them, it is obviously not the financial remuneration that is driving them (they receive a $15,000 living allowance, a $5,500 education award, student loan forbearance and health insurance). Rather, it is their ardent belief in doing tikkun olam by connecting a passion for social justice with environmental and food activism that has led them to serve in this capacity.
Some of the women (all of whom are in their early-to-mid 20’s) began to make the connection between social justice and food in their high school years, and by the time they were in college, all of them had.
Saks studied environmental science and cultural anthropology at the University of Toronto. FoodCorps has placed her with Cultivating Community in Portland, Maine (Saks was working with the organization last year as an AmeriCorps service member and was glad to be able to stay on). She will be working with several elementary schools to improve their existing gardens and with local teenagers in setting up a gardening clubs at their high schools.
Right now, she is gearing up for Maine Harvest Lunch, an annual event scheduled for later this month when school districts across the state celebrate the bounty of the fall harvest by featuring local foods on school lunch menus.
Leah Chapman, who has been assigned to Decorah, Iowa, studied in the nature and religion program at the University of Florida, focusing on sustainability and environmentalism in different religions. She wrote her thesis on food and public service in Judaism. Chapman will be busy this year commuting to three different school districts in Northeast Iowa to teach afterschool programs on nutrition. She will also help start gardens at some schools and “get the ball rolling for schools on local food procurement.” She is especially excited to teach high school students how to work on gardening and food issues with younger kids, with an eye toward building sustainability into the program.
For Emily Ritchie, it was her love of good food that led her to social justice work. She went to Occidental College in Los Angeles and studied urban and environmental policy. A native Oregonian, Ritchie is happy to be back this year in her home state, serving three schools in rural Tillamook. She will be working with Food Roots, an organization working to cultivate a healthy food system for the area, with her focus being on school gardens. “There is a high unemployment rate and high hunger in the region,” Ritchie said. She hopes to recruit some of the unemployed, as well as some retirees, to help her work with the students and teachers on the gardens.
Whereas many of the other service members have previous teaching experience, working directly with children will be a new challenge for Sarah Rubin. In particular, she is going to focus on exploring with teachers in Gloucester, Massachusetts how they can integrate their school’s garden into the existing curriculum. Rubin studied religion (with a focus on Judaism) at Oberlin College in Ohio. Raised as an observant Conservative Jew, she is certain that “keeping kosher made me subconsciously more mindful about food, which eventually led me to issues of food access and hunger alleviation,” she suggested.
Erin Taylor, who has been placed together with Rubin in Gloucester, insisted, “I didn’t go into food justice issues with a Jewish lens,” and that her primary interest is in farming. However, it is evident that her recent fellowship at Adamah, had something to do with her applying to FoodCorps about a year after finishing her studies at Tufts University on the effects of environmental degradation on public health.
Each of these women will bring something unique to FoodCorps, just as the other 45 service members will. Yet, Taylor believes they all have one important thing in common. “A lot of times in the movement you find people who are dogmatic…but this group is not like that,” she explained. “Everyone has so much passion and excitement, but in a very accessible way. This is important in reaching out to such diverse communities, kids and people who haven’t thought about these issues before.”