New Jewish food movement steps up focus on social justice

Conference leaders welcome attendees of the 2009 Hazon Food Conference in Pacific Grove, Calif. on Dec. 24, 2009. (David Gartner / Hazon)

Conference leaders welcome attendees of the 2009 Hazon Food Conference in Pacific Grove, Calif. on Dec. 24, 2009. (David Gartner / Hazon)

PACIFIC GROVE, Calif. (JTA) — Karyn Moskowitz runs the Fresh Stop Project, a food co-op program at a historic black Baptist church in West Louisville, Ky., a low-income, largely African American neighborhood.

One day she and some women at the church were talking about how they cooked fresh greens. One woman said she used bacon fat, like her friends. Moskowitz said she used olive oil, thinking she’d use the conversation as a teaching moment about the health benefits of avoiding saturated fats.

The woman responded: “Olive oil? Where do you get that?”

Moskowitz’s project brought fresh, organic fruits and vegetables to this community at an affordable price, but there were no real supermarkets in the neighborhood, no place for the residents to purchase other healthy foods. That’s something young Jewish food activists often forget, Moskowitz says.

“We think nothing of driving to Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods. They do not have that option.”

Moskowitz was speaking at the fourth annual Hazon Food Conference, held Dec. 24-27 in this coastal California town. Nearly 650 rabbis, Jewish educators, farmers and food activists spent four days learning about the connection between Jewish values and sustainable food systems, hearing from young pioneers in the fledgling new Jewish food movement spearheaded by Hazon, and sharing resources from organic farming tips to how to lobby Congress more effectively.

The new Jewish food movement, like the organics movement in general, has been criticized as somewhat elitist. Organic food, especially processed food and grass-fed, humanely-raised meat and poultry, is often more expensive than the conventional alternative — great for those who can afford it, but what of Jewish social justice values, such as feeding the poor?

This year, the food conference created a “food justice” track, providing speakers and workshops focusing on issues including workers’ rights, food access in low-income neighborhoods, Fair Trade operations, and community gardens as a tool for empowerment.

Hazon founder and executive director Nigel Savage says this focus always existed, but over the past year the new Jewish food movement has grown to a level where it can begin to put all the pieces of the social justice puzzle together. And that’s happening in local communities all over the country, he says.

“When we shechted the goats two years ago at our conference, that was before Postville, before the new ethical kosher meat businesses, before Magen Tzedek,” he said, referring to last year’s collapse of the Agriprocessors kosher meat-packing plant and the increased Jewish interest in the social justice aspects of food manufacturing. “We did it as a way to raise communal awareness. Now there’s a huge amount happening on the ground.”

Previous food conferences featured a handful of newly minted experts teaching large groups of their peers about sustainable agriculture and Jewish environmental values. At this year’s gathering, dozens of new, on-the-ground projects initiated by people influenced by past conferences, or by the new Jewish food movement in general, were given center stage.

At one session, four women discussed kosher meat and poultry businesses, the newest of which was launched just six months ago. All their animals are sustainably raised — a term encompassing a range of issues regarding health, the environment and treatment of workers — and compassionately slaughtered.

At least four people in the audience were planning to launch their own similar operations in the near future.

Last year, a handful of Jewish farming schools presented model curricula for teaching children and adults the importance of connecting with the land through community or home gardens. This year, dozens of attendees spoke about gardening programs at their own Jewish community centers or synagogues. And Vicky Kelman, known nationally for her cutting-edge work in Jewish family education, presented a new initiative to get Jewish farm education into more religious schools.

The food justice sessions, however, seemed particularly well attended. “How many people in the world can take off time from work and pay to come to a conference like this?” asked Rabbi Noah Farkas of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, Calif., who presented at three such workshops. “That’s our power and privilege, and we need to find a way to harness it.”

“Access to fresh, local food is a privilege, but it should be a right,” said Elizabeth Schwartz, a garden mentor who helps low-income residents of Portland, Ore., plant, winterize and harvest their home gardens. “I grow my own food, and there’s nothing more satisfying than teaching someone else how to do it.”

Moskowitz launched her project in Kentucky after returning home from last year’s Hazon conference. She and her 10-year-old daughter drive 100 miles every week to an Amish produce market to buy fresh, inexpensive organic fruits and vegetables, which they drive back to the church for volunteers to divide into $12 baskets.Some of the baskets are subsidized. Some of the families can’t afford to participate every week. But this is not a charity project, Moskowitz said. “It’s not me saying to them, let me serve you. It’s them calling me up and saying, I hear you know how to get food, let’s work together.”

That two-way relationship is critical, say activists involved in this work. Adam Edell of Oakland, Calif., teaches garden-based nutrition and coordinates communal nutrition events at an elementary school populated largely by the children of Latino migrant fieldworkers.

Once the children got excited about growing and eating their own produce, they wanted that same food at home. Edell invited a local farmer, also Latino, to set up a regular farmers’ market in the school parking lot so the kids’ parents could buy fresh organic produce at cut-rate prices. The project evolved into a successful Community Supported Agriculture program, where consumers pre-pay a farmer for a regular basket of fresh produce, helping the farmer as well as the families.

Joti Levy runs a garden program for fourth- to eighth-graders in San Francisco’s low-income Bayview/Hunter’s Point neighborhood. The garden she helped them grow is now the largest school garden in the city, and the students sell the produce in local farmers markets.

Levy, like Edell, Moskowitz and the other young Jewish food activists doing this work, said her Jewish identity is at the heart of what she does. “The Holocaust is not so far away,” Levy mused. “An entire nation was being oppressed, and no one stood up to help.” Today, she said, other ethnic and national groups in this country are facing systemic oppression, and it’s her responsibility as a Jew to lend a hand.

“If we’re not taking care of the lowest rungs on the ladder, the ladder will fall. That comes from deep, deep Jewish values of, don’t turn a blind eye. Let me use the privilege I have and do good work with it.”

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