Bring over 300+ foodies, chefs, nutritionists and rabbis together to talk about food… and you better have a good plan for what to feed them! Planning food for the Hazon Food Conference is a delightful challenge. We have a list of food values which we try to meet at all Hazon events — and yet the values themselves sometimes conflict with each other. Add the fact that we’re not throwing a dinner party for 12, and the decisions get a lot more complicated. Food procurement and institutional cooking is an area that has a long way to go in terms of sustainability, and we’re proud of our efforts to nudge us along on that route — but we’re far from there yet. Here are some of the values we try to meet, and the choices we made to get there at this year’s Hazon Food Conference at UC Davis.
1. Local & Seasonal: Should feature fruits and vegetables that are in season in August. Ideally they are grown in Yolo County (where UC Davis is), or at least, in Northern California or California.
2. Natural, whole grain, unprocessed: In general we favor whole wheat breads over white; granola or oatmeal over sugar cereals; yogurts, jams and peanut butters without preservatives, white sugar & white flour, artificial flavorings, or hydrogenated oils.
3. Fair Trade: Especially chocolate, coffee, tea.
4. Kosher: Any processed foods (that come in a package) should be certified kosher with a ‘kosher seal’ on the packaging.
Meeting the local and seasonal goals was easy: the Tercero Dining Services facility that catered our meals for us already sources 15% of their produce from local farms, including the UC Davis Student Farm right on campus. It was a delight to work with an institution that was already committed to increasing the amount of local procurement, and we definitely enjoyed the peaches, plums, tomatoes and rice from local farms in the area.
On the natural and unprocessed front, we had a range of options. Gluten-free breads and bagels were available. Unsweetened oatmeal was on the menu at breakfast. Whole wheat breads were on the salad bar. We also ate a lot of pasta and couscous, which weren’t particularly whole grain. I think some folks were happy with the mix, and some felt there was too much white flour. We definitely appreciated that they make their own jams and preserves in house to enjoy on our toast!
We secured a number of donated items for the conference from wonderful companies committed to sustainable, ethical food production. Fair trade tea and chocolate was available at all times. Many folks questioned why we had non-fair trade bananas available (some asked why we had bananas at all!). We asked a lot of the kitchen and they made the best decisions they could. It’s not always easy to tell where to draw the line.
Of all our guidelines, the one that was not negotiable was kashrut. Although the majority of the conference participants don’t eat strictly kosher food, providing kosher food at Hazon events is one of our core values because it enables us to be inclusive and build a pluralistic community where Jews of all stripes feel welcome. But it’s not always easy, nor do we always succeed. We got around the issue of how to have hot coffee on Shabbat by offering iced-coffee instead of made-ahead, lukewarm coffee from the day before. With August temperatures at Davis averaging in the 90s, we thought this would be acceptable to folks; however, many people decried the lack of hot water and hot coffee, and felt frustrated that orthodox rules about Shabbat were affecting their morning rituals.
We were the first kosher group to use their kitchen, so we set up a process to work with the mashgichim and kitchen staff ahead of time to clarify the process. The mashgichim reviewed the menu, ingredients list and equipment list and made suggestions for adjustments where necessary. They were helpful and kind and worked with us to find creative solutions when challenges of hekhshers arose.
Greens were not on the menu to simplify things for the kitchen. The process of checking lettuce for bugs for a 300-person salad was a task that we felt would overstretch the kitchen on their first go with kosher food. Some participants commented that they would have been happy to come a few days early to wash lettuce and kale if it meant we could have eaten it over the weekend. This is something that we plan to look into for future conferences.
Serving meat was a question that challenged us on the kashrut and local front. Although there are a number of kosher, ethical meat purveyors in the Northeast, there are no local sources for kosher meat near Davis. Even so, we decided to ship meat from KOL Foods, a 100% grass-fed kosher meat purveyor based in Washington, DC, for the event – both to showcase their great work and feed people at least one delicious meat meal at the conference. Adding meat to the menu required a whole other set of dishes and kitchen equipment. We got around this issue by serving meat outside at a BBQ at a beautiful spot on campus near a creek and thinking creatively about dishes and utensils. Although the campus grounds crew normally doesn’t let anyone use metal utensils outside on their lawns (because an abandoned fork can wreak havoc in a lawn mower), we secured special permission to use metal forks on the condition that we would be very careful not to drop any! We served the food on paper plates, but also had flying discs made and available for purchase. The idea was that you could buy a disc, eat your lunch off it, and then use it to play with afterwards.
Hazon works to create healthy and sustainable communities in the Jewish world and beyond. It’s our hope that people were nourished at the conference, both intellectually, spiritually, and physically – and also that our transparency around our food choices can inspire others to think critically about the food they serve at events. If you’ve dealt with similar situations and have come up with creative solutions, please let us know! We’ll keep you posted as our journey continues.
Anna Hanau is the Associate Director of Food Programs at Hazon, and co-authored “Food for Thought, Hazon’s Sourcebook on Jews, Food and Contemporary Life.” She and her husband Naf Hanau founded a kosher pastured meat business called Grow and Behold Foods in summer 2010, and she keeps a flock of chickens in her backyard in Brooklyn.