Judaism, Food and Social Justice

Is there more to Jewish food than bagels and Manischewitz? The new Jewish Food Movement, a loose confederation of farmers, religious leaders, health and nutrition buffs, organizers, philosophers, activists, and consumers, says yes. Drawing on deep Jewish religious traditions and values, the movement is inspiring a new generation of Jews to lead lives of faith, justice, environmentalism, and community through their food.

For thousands of years, food has been center stage in the drama of Jewish spiritual and communal life. Ancient offerings in the temple, called korbanot (from the Hebrew karov, "to be close") were eaten to bring oneself closer to God. Shechita, ritual slaughter necessary to make meat kosher, heightened the Jewish people's sensitivity to the suffering of animals. Jewish law demands that sections of private fields be left open for the poor.

But how do we apply those principles today, in our complicated, industrialized food world? Over this three-part series we'll explore how the movement draws on ancient wisdom to promote social justice, spirituality, and environmental sustainability through food. Each part of the series will explore one of these areas. We'll begin this series on the Jewish Food Movement with social justice, looking specifically at how the movement addresses the rights of food workers and the fight against hunger and access to food.

The Rights of Food Workers

The famous tagline of Hebrew National, a kosher meat producer, reads: "We answer to a higher authority." It reflects a long-held perception that kosher food is holier or more morally produced than other food, above the ethical fray. But is it true?

The gap between perceptions and reality of the food industry was highlighted in 2008 with the federal immigration raid and subsequent revelations about oppressive working conditions at the Agriprocessors slaughterhouse in Postville, Iowa. The child labor, wage violations, and hazardous working conditions that were taking place at the plant shook the consciousness of thousands of Jewish consumers, forcing them to ask tough questions for the first time: does the fact that my food is ritually kosher mean it's produced in an ethical way? What is the responsibility of my community to monitor ethical issues? What does "kosher" mean anyway? The silver lining of the tragic Agriprocessors story is that today people around the country are seeking answers to those tough questions.

For many, those questions focused on the rights of the workers who produce kosher food. The treatment of workers is a deep Jewish issue. The Torah states, "You shall not oppress a hired worker, whether he is poor or needy, whether he is of your brethren, or a stranger within your land and within your gates" (Deuteronomy 24:15). The workers the Torah refers to were often migrant laborers helping on farms, similar to migrant workers today. The Talmud, the great storehouse of Jewish wisdom, goes so far as to equate oppressing these hired workers with murder (Talmud Bavli, Bava Metzia, 112a).

The realities of many sectors of the food industry today reveal the gap between the kind of worker justice called for in these sacred texts and what is being practiced in the field. Several groups have stepped up to shorten the distance between the real and the ideal.

An orthodox-Jewish group called Uri L'Tzedek (an organization I had the honor of co-founding in 2007) organized an immediate response to the worker abuses happening at Agriprocessors, organizing almost 2000 Jewish rabbis and leaders to sign a statement demanding that Agriprocessors institute an internal compliance department bringing them in line with federal and state law labor laws. When the demands were not initially met, Uri L'Tzedek launched a nationwide boycott of the company until the company instituted a compliance department three weeks later.

In response to the scandal, the Conservative Movement announced an impressive initiative, the Hekhsher Tzedek Commission, designed to certify the ethical production of food products. Products carrying the Magen Tzedek seal will reflect ethical standards on a variety of issues: employee wages and benefits, health and safety, animal welfare, corporate transparency and environmental impact. The seal, which has not yet been awarded to any products, aims to certify a comprehensive set of concerns that begin at the farm (for animal products) or field (for plant products), and carry those values through every step of the food production process.

Exactly one year after the raid, Uri L'Tzedek launched a social initiative called the Tav HaYosher (Ethical Seal), certifying basic ethical requirements for how food establishments treat their workers. The standards were developed after studies showed that in New York City, thousands of food industry workers are paid below minimum wage, denied overtime, and experience illegal harassment and abuse. I've personally met with delivery workers making $3 an hour biking through the streets of Manhattan, delivering food that is technically kosher but reliant on exploiting other human beings to deliver it. The seal, which launched last year with seven restaurants in New York City, has now expanded to 40 Jewish food establishments in five different states. The Tav HaYosher was inspired by a similar initiative launched in Israel called the Tav Chevrati that protects workers in food establishments there.

Fair Food Access

In addition to justice for workers, the Jewish Food movement has also taken on hunger and access to nutritious food as a critical issue. Studies have shown that there are over 1 billion hungry people on the planet, more than ever before in history. The Jewish community of Los Angeles has taken on this critical issue by assembling a large coalition of groups under its Fed Up with Hunger initiative. This initiative includes food pantries, legislative efforts to end hunger and creating venues that provide access to nutritional food for all.

The Progressive Jewish Alliance, a 10 year old Jewish social justice organization in LA, is making food justice a priority for 2010. Their work includes raising awareness by showing Jewish leaders the food deserts of East LA, launching a campaign to bring grocery stores that provide both fresh food and middle-class jobs to L.A. food deserts, and volunteering at local community gardens that provide access to healthy food.

Another group, Mazon, is a national nonprofit devoted entirely to preventing and alleviating hunger among people of all faiths and backgrounds. Every year, Mazon grants over $4 million to more than 300 hunger-relief agencies, including emergency food providers, food banks, multi-service organizations and advocacy groups that seek long-term solutions to the hunger problem.

The Tie That Binds

Food is the tie that binds the lives of vulnerable workers in rural Iowa, multinational corporate executives in New York, hungry schoolchildren in inner city LA, and you and me together. The Jewish food movement is seeking ways to meet the 21st century challenges this presents -- instituting systems and standards designed to help us consume food in ways that honor the infinite value, God's image, in all people.

What initiatives are happening in other religious traditions? How do these initiatives resonate with you?