“Food insecurity” is a new term in the American lexicon. It has replaced the word “hunger” to accurately describe the experience of families who suffer from unreliable access to adequate food from non-emergency sources. One in six families in the United States are currently classified as food insecure–the highest level since the government began collecting data in 1995. To combat this troubling trend, numerous groups including Jewish agencies, the USDA, and Presidential initiatives, are encouraging local and sustainable farming and food distribution methods as a way to achieve increased food security. Local and sustainable food systems promise a smaller carbon footprint, safer food, stimulated local economies and structural solutions to the root causes of obesity and food insecurity.
Over the last 20 years, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) has become a popular way for consumers to have access to local, seasonal food directly from a farmer. CSAs link consumers as members or shareholders with a local farm by purchasing “shares” that result in a weekly produce box. The consumer benefits from fresh, local, seasonal food and the farm benefits from the support of community members. These farms help keep wealth within the local economy, and provide new farm-related jobs as well. Overall, small farms promise more sustainable agricultural practice, including a smaller carbon footprint and a reuse of natural resources. Currently, over 1,200 communities now support CSA farms.
Local food policy councils have been springing up across the country to better integrate food policies from farm to fork and address shortcomings in our food system. These councils convene citizens and government officials to develop coordinated action towards a more effective food system, including issues regarding health, production, consumption, and distribution. Typical citizen representatives include farmers, consumers, anti-hunger advocates, health care professionals and researchers with expertise in nutrition and obesity, food bank managers, labor representatives, members of the faith community, and academics involved in food policy and law.
Another concept that grew out of the desire to support community-based food systems is the Farm to School Program. 2,000 public schools in 40 states have connected their school meal programs to local producers through this program. With 30 million children eating school lunch five days a week, this program greatly improves the quality of food served in child nutrition programs as well the economic viability of local farms.
Jewish tradition and texts embrace the ideals of food security as well. For example, the Torah highlights the importance of sustainable harvest practices through the concept of Shmita, or Sabbatical year. The reconciliation of human sustenance and land sustainability has been at the forefront of Jewish through from the time of the Sanhedrin through the 2007 Shmita year in Israel and beyond.
Jewish social justice groups, such as Uri L’Tzedek and Hazon, have moved to expand modern Jewish concepts of food to include kashrut as well as other means of ethical food production and consumption. Uri L’Tzedek (Awaken to Justice), an Orthodox social justice movement, coined the term “yoshor” (upright, ethically aligned), which it bestows on applicable kosher establishments, while Hazon focuses on Jewish food education and anti-hunger advocacy. These movements are broadening the scope of Jewish concerns about our food system to include bal tashchit (sustainability), oshek (social justice) and shemirat haguf (health). These ideas encourage a moral approach to farming through sustainable agricultural methods, along with fair labor practices, safety standards, corporate transparency and nutritional health. They assert that Jewish wisdom can be of use to all peoples, by serving as inspiration for a standard of sustainability and justice in our entire food system.
Jewish movements have been eager to support these ideals as well. Eco-kosher, a Jewish term emphasizing environmental, labor, economic, and health impacts on food, has been accepted and interpreted by a wide range of denominations. The Reform Movement’s Rabbi Eric Yoffie, for example, expressly endorsed these values at the 2009 URJ Biennial General Assembly. The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and the Rabbinical Assembly’s Heksher Tzedek Commission have created the Magen Tzedek seal. This symbol is intended by its sponsors to be a sign to consumers that certain food products reflect their understanding of Jewish ethical values and ideals for social justice in the area of labor concerns, animal welfare, environmental impact, consumer issues and corporate integrity. The Magen Tzedek seal is designed to coexist with other rabbinic recommendations, such as the Jewish Principles and Ethical Guidelines (JPEG) for the Kosher Food Industry released by the Rabbinical Council of America, the rabbinic arm of the Orthodox movement.
The JCPA believes that:
- Improved access to and affordability of fresh, nutritious, and quality foods, including organic and sustainably farmed food is beneficial to consumers. This includes not only independent consumers but also those relying on school lunches, food served in hospitals, institutions and other venues.
- Federal nutrition assistance programs are essential tools in the fight against hunger. Barriers to participation for eligible participants should be removed and participants should be able to access benefits without shame or undue difficulty.
- Federal nutrition assistance programs should be coupled with educational programs to assist beneficiaries in making healthy choices, in particular to combat obesity and other forms of poor nutrition.
- The ability of local farmers to explore, expand and benefit from local markets and distribution, including urban agriculture projects, is important for community food security.
- Regional and/or local food policy councils are a key model of a democratic food system and generate support for comprehensive food security.
- The full range of Jewish guidelines on ethical food production and consumption deserve our renewed focus.
The community relations field should:
- Advocate for fair market access to farmers who engage in organic and sustainable agricultural practices.
- Work with other advocates to increase participation in the range of Federal nutrition assistance programs, including the Farm to Cafeteria program which provides one time grants to connect farms and schools, the school breakfast lunch and after school food programs, and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
- Support Community Supported Agriculture and other local food distribution systems by actively helping to link sources with distribution sites, such as community centers, schools, churches, synagogues, etc.
- Develop a network of community gardens and other innovative gardening programs to increase demand for and sources of local foods through synagogue social justice projects, community outreach programs and schools.
- Work with or help create local food policy councils.
- Actively explore and work at putting into practice Jewish ethical ideals and values regarding food production and consumption, and broadly engage with the range of guidelines such as JPEG, Hechsher Tzedek, yoshor, and eco-kosher.