What is the purpose of a community garden? A few weeks ago, I would have said that I knew the answer to this question: that a community garden’s purpose is to nourish people with healthy food and to subvert a corrupt system by providing an alternate model.
However, at this year’s Hazon Food Conference at Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center, Rabbi Noah Farkas challenged me to imagine the larger impact community gardens could have in creating a more just food system across lines of race and class. He pushed me to question how community gardens can lead us not just towards rejecting the system, but also changing the system itself.
After spending this past summer working on an organic farm I became enamored with composting. It is a way of giving old food new life and it’s the great equalizer of all food – whether delicious or not, healthful or not, expensive or not, or organic or not, it all decomposes and becomes part of the same soil.
This summer I also became, rather late into the movement, an advocate of buying organic. I came to see it as a way for individuals to take a step toward the goal of creating and living out a more sustainable food system where both people and resources are valued. As a result, I began to view conventional agriculture’s use of pesticides as a distinct inhibitor to achieving this kind of system.
Right now, I feel pretty bad for myself. As a result of my personal version of a pre-Passover plague of bed bugs, everything I own is in a plastic garbage bag. My kitchen looks like a landfill; a giant heap of what looks like garbage, but is actually the only possessions I have to call my own. I have been wearing the same pair of pants for more than a week, and have been sleeping on my couch with a towel as a blanket.
But, at least I know I can survive this part. A few years ago I traveled through Nepal for a number of weeks with only one pair of pants and two shirts. I traveled from Israel and when the Nepali banks refused to exchange my shekels into rupees, I had no choice but to sit on the curb and cry. I was alone in a place I had never been and had nothing but the very few clothes in my pack. Where would I sleep? Where would my next meal come from?
“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.
On Thursday, Trader Joe’s signed a Fair Food Agreement with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, guaranteeing that they will only buy from growers who have signed a Code of Conduct in their fields and ensuring a penny per pound wage increase for the tomato pickers. The Code of Conduct enshrines the rights of workers to shade and water, enforces zero-tolerance policies for violence, wage theft, and sexual harassment, and prevents the conditions that lead to slavery and human trafficking. Trader Joe’s becomes only the second grocery store chain to sign an Agreement, joining Whole Foods, many major fast food chains (such as Taco Bell and Burger King), and major food services companies like Aramark.
I wrote about the CIW for the Jew and the Carrot back in October, and as luck would have it, was in Immokalee last week, taking another group of “tomato rabbis” to meet with the workers and become inspired to take action along with their congregations. As trip participant Rabbi Robert Dobrusin described, “We saw the destitute conditions many of these workers live in. We heard the stories of the hard, backbreaking work and stood in the parking lot in the middle of the town at 6 a.m. as workers boarded old school buses to take them out to the fields. And, we learned of the efforts that are starting to make real changes in the lives of the workers because of the dedication of the leaders of the coalition and volunteers who have come to their aid.”
When I walked into Roxbury Park’s Community Center this past Sunday night, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I’ve been involved with the New Jewish Food Movement for a number of years, and one of the many questions I keep asking is, “What exactly is the landscape of the Food Movement?” In my work as a community rabbi both within a congregation and outside of it, I know that community needs definition, even in the broadest possible sense. Without definitions, a community can fail, especially one that describes itself as a “Movement.” So when my food-based organization, Netiya, co-sponsored a food justice event, Harvesting Justice, along with JFSJ/PJA and IKAR, I walked in with a number of questions in my pocket: what is the message of this “movement,” who makes up its committed core, and what can we learn from each other? In short, my questions could be surmised into a single query: “Who are we, really?”
Harvesting Justice brought together a large swath of organizations and individuals who self-associate with the word “food.” In the courtyard of the community center, a number of invited groups put on a foodie fair with booths with everything from making vegan-raw chocolate pudding, to “shopping” (read: taking for free) from a selection of fallen fruits and vegetables from around Los Angeles, to advocates for restaurant worker justice. One would need a very wide-angle lens to capture the panorama of issues, programs, and initiatives associated with the Food Justice Movement, let alone the entire Food Movement.
Imagine sitting down to an intimate community dinner with a smattering of neighbors and fellow city dwellers. The host directs you to a buffet table of simple spaghetti and offers you a can of soda. Perhaps you think nothing of the no-frills meal you’re about to enjoy, until you notice that your neighbor Jill, who works in finance, and is seated at the small table next to you, receives a steaming, full plate piled with lean meat, mashed potatoes, and vegetables and a healthful sparkling drink. Meanwhile the family of four that lives down the street, and whose head of household you know has recently been laid off from her job at the post office, has been ushered to a third table in the corner and is being served only small portions of white bread and water.
As your face boils at the indignity, and your pasta starts to leave a bitter taste in your mouth, you might question who would host such an uncomfortable and poorly distributed meal — and why.
During the month of High Holidays, I rediscovered my Jewish conscience. Not in a big, showy way, but in an ”oh this is what this is all about moment.” I was raised on a sort of ‘hallmark Judaism’, which tamed the most radical statements of equality and justice in our tradition. In my suburban synagogue, “justice, justice, you shall pursue,” became “be nice and stand up for your friends.” But that’s definitely not all that it means; it’s a much bigger call to action. It’s a challenge, an order, and the unrelenting, unapologetic demand that we must make this world better for others.
There is a certain righteousness of purpose in challenging the status quo in the name of justice. It’s a noisy, powerful form of protest, but it’s not the only way. Over the past few years, two organizations have been working to make social justice synonymous with kosher food. Their work fills an important need in our community, but it seems worthwhile to pose the skeptical question: can a mere label really change the way Big Kosher Food does business?
Why was a group of rabbis singing around some tomatoes at a Publix supermarket in Naples, Fla.? No, it wasn’t a new ritual about mindful eating, but rather an act of protest. Would you pay one penny more per pound for tomatoes to ensure a better wage and a more dignified workplace for farmworkers? That’s the underlying question our prayer circle was asking.
Through Rabbis for Human Rights-North America (where I run a campaign on modern slavery), the fifteen of us have traveled from all over the country to learn about the abuses of the Florida tomato industry: sub-poverty wages, violence and sexual harassment, wage theft, exposure to dangerous pesticides, and — in six successfully prosecuted cases over the past ten years (resulting in more than 1,000 people being freed) — modern slavery. Florida produces most off-season tomatoes eaten by those of us who live east of the Mississippi, so the chances are pretty high that if you’ve eaten a fresh tomato in the winter, it came from Florida. Immokalee, where we were visiting, has been called “ground zero” of modern slavery by a federal prosecutor.
August 18, 2011 marked the first day of Hazon’s annual Food Conference. The four day gathering at UC-Davis, a global leader in sustainability projects, united people from Colorado to Japan under open blue skies and amongst beautiful trees, flowers, creeks, and even a dairy farm and winery. Food, fun, and activities aside, the 311 person gathering had an intense agenda including seven program tracks like Food Systems and Policy and Jewish Agriculture.
The Food Justice and Tikkun Olam track provided an opportunity for community activists, teachers, students and foodies alike to learn from one another about our complex food system and a broader movement to address hunger, poverty, workers rights, and food access both locally and abroad. Pursue, a project of American Jewish World Service and AVODAH, hosted a session called “Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA): A Vehicle for Collective Action and World-Changing!” The workshop provided a platform for learning, idea sharing, and, ideally, continued conversation and collaboration. All three presenters were recipients of the Pursue Food Justice Scholarship, a pilot initiative to strengthen the food justice programming at this year’s conference.
Last week 12 excited Hazon representatives and 160 other Jewish participants gathered in Washington D.C. as part of the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable (JSJRT), a collection of 21 nonprofits supporting social justice as an essential component of Jewish life. The two-day affair began on Thursday, July 28th with congressional meetings and culminated the following day with the White House Community Leaders Briefing Series, a unique summer-long opportunity for grassroots leaders to engage White House officials and voice issues close to our hearts.
Jon Carson, deputy assistant to the President and director of the White House Office of Public Engagement, succinctly articulated the purpose of the series: “I’m not here to talk,” he said. “I’m here to listen about what you’re seeing across the country.” For many in Hazon’s cohort and millions of American Jews, this issue is food justice.
The Passover seder is Jewish drama. Over the evening, a tale of slavery and liberation, despair and hope, narrow straits and open possibilities unfolds. We experience this drama through food. We lift high the matzah, the bread of affliction, for all to see; we taste the painful maror to remind us of embittered lives and oppressive work; we drink four cups of redemptive wine. Food brings these experiences to life. Through eating, we bring these symbols into our bodies.
The Jewish people have retold this drama every year for literally thousands of years; but each year is different. In every generation we continue the work of the Exodus, continuing to fight for freedom and justice in the world. This year, many Jewish groups are adding a chapter to the seder’s never-ending story of oppression and freedom: food justice.
Uri L’Tzedek, in partnership with Hazon and the Bronfman Alumni Venture Fund, just released their first Food and Justice Haggadah Supplement, (available for free download), featuring 26 essays, insights and action to unite food, social justice and ethical consumption.