With Passover around the corner, many of us are poised to recite the words, “Let all who are hungry come and eat.”
But when nearly 1 billion people around the world are hungry or malnourished, these words become acutely daunting—particularly for communities recovering from disasters.
More than three years after a major earthquake ravaged Haiti, the country is still struggling to recover. Unfortunately, there is no shortage of problems: homelessness, violence, political corruption and, perhaps most severe, a shortage of food—resulting in hunger. In November 2012, these crises were further exacerbated by Hurricane Sandy, which ripped through Haiti before wreaking havoc in New York and New Jersey.
If you’re Jewish, and into food, and not outraged, then you’re not paying attention.
Americans like to think of ourselves as a generous people, and we are – even though special interests transform much of our international food aid programs into a wasteful boondoggle that undermines the abilities of communities and countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America to feed themselves. And that’s what’s happening now. Food aid is critical and important, but for it to work, it needs to work right, and right now, not enough of it is.
Here’s why: if children are starving in part of Ethiopia, it makes sense for US aid dollars to buy food from farmers close by in other parts of Ethiopia or neighboring countries. Buying locally develops and sustains local agriculture, and gets the food to those in need quickly. But instead current US law requires virtually all food aid to be bought from heavily subsidized US agribusinesses and shipped overseas. That means that more than half of every food aid grain dollar is wasted in subsidizing large companies and shipping costs and takes up to 14 weeks longer to reach hungry people than buying food locally. And it’s even worse than that, because sending free or subsidized US grain to developing countries such as Haiti can undermine local agriculture in the long-term, making future famines more likely, as communities are no longer able to feed themselves in the face of future shocks such as drought. Communities in which I have worked as a volunteer with American Jewish World Service are now far more vulnerable to hunger are a result of of subsidized US food dumped into their countries.
When is the last time a complete stranger asked you to tell your personal story explaining why you care about a political or social issue?
As part of my job as a community sales representative at Equal Exchange, I ask customers, who are, for the most part, strangers, to share their personal stories all the time. Why are they spending their limited time on Fair Trade, promoting the programs of our worker-owned co-operative? Why do they care so much about the farmers growing our food?
During phone calls, customers I’ve never met in person share stories of deeply humbling international trips to visit coffee farmers; stories about their grandfather, a small-scale tobacco farmer, being taken advantage of by a large agribusiness; and stories about the first time they heard a news report on the widespread use of child slaves in the cocoa industry.
These unique stories led to the same conclusion: The people who grow our food deserve higher wages and more humane treatment.
This is the story of a fishpond.
Not just any old fishpond, but a fishpond in Muchucuxcah (Pronounce the x like a sh), Mexico, four hours west of Cancun.
I was in Muchucuxcah for ten days in January with American Jewish World Service’s Rabbinical Students Delegation. We were there to learn about global poverty, to see quality development work firsthand and to work on said fishpond.
“This just makes common sense, and—I think—it makes Jewish sense.”
I was privileged to watch this briefing in action. The panelists, Barbara Weinstein of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (the RAC); Josh Protas of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA); Mia Hubbard of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger; and Timi Gerson of AJWS, had addressed an audience earlier that day in the one of the Senate conference rooms: a spacious, red-carpeted room bedecked with large portraits of senators past and present. This second briefing was in a smaller, more intimate room, not substantially different from the Multi-Purpose Room of my childhood synagogue in suburban New Jersey.
Not in the way you might think—I wasn’t standing over a cutting board, knife in hand, sobbing my way through an extended dicing activity. The onions that made me cry were whole, bagged and stacked about 5 feet high, in a small village in Western Senegal, where I was travelling with American Jewish World Service.
I cried because of the story behind this stack of onions, a story of thwarted ambition, injustice, and our broken global food system. Working with a local Non-Governmental Organization called GREEN Senegal, farmers from this village had implemented new farming practices, such as drip irrigation that vastly improved their efficiency and productivity. With much less time and effort, they had increased the quantity and quality of their onion crop, and were ready to bring their goods to market. In addition to the economic gain the villagers hoped to see through their efforts, the new efficiencies had the side benefits of allowing children to spend more time in school, rather than in the fields helping with the harvest, and mothers to spend more time in the home caring for their families.
While it may seem like an unlikely target for a swell of Jewish activism, the Farm Bill—which dictates U.S. law on everything from agriculture to food stamps to biofuels—is packed with policies that go against the grain of Jewish ethics. The bill is up for debate and reauthorization this year, and six Jewish organizations are seizing the opportunity to call for reforms that they feel will go a long way toward achieving their Torah-inspired visions of food justice. Even though they’re each tackling a different aspect of the bill, they’ve recently joined forces to maximize their power and mobilize their constituents toward a common goal.
I know, I know. The last thing you want to think about right now is another holiday in October. As much as many of us love the High Holidays — the sweetness, the reflection time, the motley collection of creative community sukkahs, the lulavs and etrogs, and joy — there’s a point at which (probably around now), we’re done.
But there’s one non-religious day I want you to add to your calendar now that this month of Jewish holidays is almost over.
The First Annual Food Day is Monday, October 24, with events happening all around the country. Food Day is billed broadly as a day to change how Americans eat and think about food. It’s also a very specific opportunity for individuals and organizations to make our advocacy for sustainable, fair food systems go even further.
In the desert of Peru, there is no challah bread and definitely no kosher wine. That, however, didn’t stop the participants of AJWS’s volunteer summer program from sanctifying the Sabbath in a special way. They found their kosher substitutions in a sweet bread called bizcocho and a drink made from purple corn known as chicha morada. In an ever-shrinking world, an increasing number of opportunities are appearing for kashrut-observant Jews who wish to visit exotic foreign locales. But the age-old question for the wandering Jew remains: Where can we eat?
American Jewish World Service, which runs 25 service-learning programs each year in rural communities in countries such as Burma, Liberia, and Cambodia, often venturing where no Jews have previously set foot, has devised ways to eat local and kosher food in some of the most remote parts of the world.
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