Seven Species, Urban Agriculture and Food Justice

Dear All,

Tomorrow morning 134 riders are due to set out to ride from Jerusalem to Ashkelon, on the 13th Arava Institute Hazon Israel Ride. By the time you read this I hope we’ll be nearly at Mitzpeh Ramon. More on the Israel Ride, hopefully, next week.

Meanwhile, I was thinking about the first day route. I remember a few years ago doing nearly the same route we’re doing tomorrow, and having Bill Slot – our amazing tour guide, then and now – pointing out that all of the seven species indigenous to Israel and listed in Devarim (Deuteronomy) were growing alongside our route; we passed each one of them in the course of that single day’s Ride. I shall keep my eyes out tomorrow.

It seemed therefore a good moment to say something about Jews and gardens; about the process of growing things. I think it’s starting to become clear that really every Jewish community in the world – ideally every single institution – should have its own garden.

In communities across America, urban agriculture is taking root as an innovative solution to increase access to healthy food while, at the same time, revitalizing the economic and social health of communities. And it’s definitely happening in the Jewish community. It seems invidious to name just two examples – there are so many good ones – but I wanted to point out for example the great programs at KAM Isaiah Israel in Chicago, Illinois (called the Chicago’s “Garden of Eden” by The Chicago Jewish News) and the Peninsula Jewish Community Center in Foster City, California (featured in the JCarrot article “Sowing the Seeds of Justice”).

Jewish communities can benefit from engaging in this movement by:

  • Growing fresh food for institutions, congregants/members in need, and emergency food providers (shelters, pantries, kitchens);
  • Practicing Jewish values in a literal “hands-on” way that brings the Jewish values of pe’ah (leaving the corners), shikhecah (leaving sheaves, or the second harvest) and aser t’aser (tithing) to life;
  • Educating constituents about sustainable land use and growing practices; and
  • Developing respect for, and understanding of, where food comes from—and thus thinking about the relationship between mindfulness and gratitude for food.

I also think that growing food for others with intention and love has a deeper impact than canned food drives, bagged lunches, or similar food justice/hunger relief initiatives, important though those are. Programming can involve the whole family. Gardens have intergenerational appeal; they’re accessible. Seemingly abstract values derived from Jewish text can suddenly be seen, felt and touched.

And the process of growing food suddenly opens us up to new awareness. So many communities lack sufficient access to healthy foods. Limited healthy food access leads to an under-consumption of healthy food, often supplemented with high-calorie, high-fat foods and sugary drinks. I struggle with eating healthily – anyone who knows me knows that I have a very sweet tooth – and I really try to avoid sugary treats when I can. Yet I’m surrounded by easily accessible healthy food. What would it be like if I were not? These are some of the key issues we need to be working on as a society:

  • Proximity: The distance residents must travel to reach outlets that sell healthy foods can impact the amount of healthy food they purchase. Travel costs (including both the time spent traveling and the cost of driving a private vehicle or taking public transportation) can increase the real cost of healthy food and keep people from purchasing it.
  • Variety: Variety ensures sufficient choice – beyond a single option or two – and supports a healthy diet.
  • Quality: Accessible, healthy food should also be of good quality. “Give food that you yourself would eat.”
  • Affordability: This includes both an affordable sticker price as well as the ability to use nutrition program benefits (e.g. CalFresh or WIC) in addition to cash.

The phrase “food security” simply means having, at all times, both physical and economic access to sufficient food to meet dietary needs for a productive and healthy life. A family or community is food secure when its members do not live in hunger or fear of hunger.

“Food insecurity” is the term of art used in the human service and public health fields to describe the condition under which people skip or reduce the size of their meals for lack of financial resources. It is deemed more accurate than “hunger.” Perhaps an awkward phrase, it is used here to be accurate and consistent with the industry standard.

Food security is itself built on three pillars:

1. Food availability: sufficient quantities of food available on a consistent basis;

2. Food access: having sufficient resources to obtain appropriate foods for a nutritious diet, as well as access to proper utilities for cooking;

3. Food use: appropriate use based on knowledge of basic nutrition and care, as well as adequate water and sanitation.

And “food justice” simply means equality with regards to access to food. Promoting food justice involves changing inequitable systems that enable some people to have access to sufficient food while others go hungry. Food justice advocates work to address and dismantle the policies, structural barriers, and power relationships that perpetuate food insecurity and undermine people’s ability to control their own food systems.

A just food system is one where a community can freely exercise the right to grow, buy, sell and eat healthy food. Healthy food is fresh, nutritious, affordable, culturally-appropriate and grown locally with care for the well-being of the land, animals and food and farm workers who grow, pack, pick and process our food.

Examples of food injustice include:

  • Urban and rural residents who do not have access to affordable, nutritious food
  • Farm laborers who are exposed to dangerous pesticides and chemical fertilizers
  • Small farmers, especially small farmers of color, who are systematically disenfranchised from government subsidies
  • Communities whose water and food is contaminated by industrial chemicals and hormones as a result of factory farming
  • Cultures whose ancestral crops are now endangered and whose traditional ingredients are hard to find
  • Farmers throughout the world whose markets are flooded by overwhelming quantities of subsidized industrial crops, thereby driving down the price they can get for food grown for local consumption

Finally, I’d like to give a shout out to three great organizations a shout out to three great organizations doing important work, in different ways, on these issues. One is to Mazon (no relation to Hazon, though we’re both proud members of the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable), which continues to play a leading role in rallying the Jewish community to make a difference for people in need. Here in Israel, Leket is doing really remarkable work — now on an enormous scale — in redirecting food to people in need. And the third is to Rabbi Marc Soloway, who’s on Hazon’s board – and on the Israel Ride – and despite the travails of his own community in Boulder, took the time to go with Truah (The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights) on a recent trip to support the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Florida. Click here to read what Marc wrote after that trip – a really superb short piece.

Wishing you Shabbat shalom, and hodesh tov (yes – it’s Hanukkah, really soon…)

PS: The Farm Bill is now in conference and is at the closest point to being passed in three years. This has enormous implications for food policies from SNAP (food stamps), to local sustainable agriculture, to farmers overseas in poor countries. Click here to read today’s article, “Farm Talks Open with Optimism” in Politico.

Best wishes,

Nigel Savage

Executive Director, Hazon

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