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Of Food, Justice And The Environment

Of Food, Justice And The Environment

Tilling the ground of an increasingly fertile intersection.

Hazon, a Jewish environmental organization working to build a healthier and more sustainable Jewish community, is one of the most visible and forward-thinking such groups in the Jewish community.

It supports Community Supported Agriculture, runs an annual food conference, sponsors environmental bike rides and is at the forefront of the growing Jewish food movement. The Jewish Week spoke with Cheryl Cook, the group’s acting executive director, about the group’s focus and some of its new initiatives along with the burgeoning Jewish food movement in general.

Bring us up to date on the CSA movement. Have you seen an increase in the number of synagogues/JCCs participating?

Cheryl Cook: CSAs [where people can get produce from local farmers] still capture congregations’ imaginations when they are looking to make a statement about their commitment to sustainability as well as explore innovative community-building programs. Just the other day, a young fellow called us up with his rabbi; he wants to start a CSA at his shul as part of his bar mitzvah project. Hazon’s CSA program now includes 57 sites in the U.S., Canada and Israel. We continue to see interest from new sites, and we’ve also been in touch with many CSAs that are already established at a synagogue, but are looking for the Jewish connection. Our sites in Newton, Mass., and Easton, Pa., were established CSA sites that came to Hazon looking for Jewish programming. In terms of JCCs and synagogues, we still have a pretty even mix.

We’ve heard the term “food justice” bandied about lately. What is your sense of what it means and how it fits in with Jewish values?

Jewish food justice goes back to the Torah, where laws about taking care of the less fortunate are written into the agricultural system. Some of these laws, including tithing, peah (leaving the corners of your fields) and gleaning (allowing others to take the “second harvest” after the primary crop has been removed) are the inspiration for creative adaptations: our CSA in Brooklyn had people donate extra money for CSA shares, which was then donated to a partner CSA in the South Bronx that used the funds to purchase shares for its members. Care to Share, a Sukkot initiative that we’re hosting with UJA-Federation of New York this year, aims to involve the broader community in donating fresh produce to soup kitchens and food pantries.

Food justice refers to the broad set of social issues that affect an individual or community’s ability to feed themselves nutritious, culturally appropriate food; the issues include poverty, food access, farm worker health, etc. Jews have been passionately committed to tikkun olam for centuries — whether through soup kitchens, giving tzedakah, or lobbying to improve social conditions — and the latest “trend” of food justice is just an extension of that.

Your group is launching a “Food Audit” in the fall. Tell us about that.

While Hazon CSAs brought local, fresh vegetables into Jewish institutions across North America, many synagogues were asking us where do you go from here? How else can my institution make changes? How do we make healthy, sustainable changes? The Food Audit allows Jewish institutions to consider all the food choices they are making at their institutions and begin to identify areas for improvement. Each section of the audit corresponds to the “Hazon Food Guide,” which provides practical tools for making healthy and sustainable choices. The “Hazon Food Guide” and audit cover everything from healthy, sustainable, kosher food that is “fit” to eat to food waste and includes education for adults and children, food justice, community agriculture and gardens, and more.

What is your assessment about how committed the Jewish community is to issues of sustainability, energy independence, ethical kashrut?

The rapid and far-reaching growth of the Jewish food movement over the past five years is a clear testament to the commitment of the Jewish community to these issues. Our Hazon CSA program has grown to more than 57 sites, Jewish Food Education Network has almost 90 members, over 5,000 copies of “Food for Thought: Hazon’s Sourcebook on Jews, Food, and Contemporary Life” have been published. More Jewish institutions are planting gardens, new organizations have started like Urban Adamah, Jewish Farm School, Ekar Farm, Wilderness Torah and Netiya to name a few. … We are re-launching a Cross USA Ride in the summer or 2012. Not only will we be cycling across the country, but we will be connecting with communities along the way, educating around sustainable and healthy living and learning about the challenges that face their unique communities.

Hazon sponsors a bicycle ride that benefits the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies in Israel. How would you rate Israel’s environmental movement?

For the past eight years Hazon has worked to strengthen the Israeli environmental movement through our partnership with the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies. Israel Riders have raised over $1.4 million for the Arava Institute. A number of mini-grants from our New York Jewish Environmental Bike Rides also support projects in Israel. It has been amazing to see the things that have arisen as a result. The Tel Aviv Bike Association has grown from a small local resource to the Israel Bike Association, a national advocacy force that in 2010 won approval for bicycles to be brought on Israel’s train system.

Our partnerships in Israel go beyond funding, though, and for the second time, this fall we will be working with the Heschel Center for Environmental Learning and Leadership to run a sustainable food tour in Israel. There is great movement in Israel around these issues.

How are you finding fundraising for environmental causes in a lousy economy?

2011 is a challenging year across the board for nonprofits, and we are experiencing that as well. At the same time, there is a great and growing interest around issues of food and sustainability.