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Sustainable Food, Sustainable Faith

Food is now largely produced by huge corporate, industrialized farms hundreds or thousands of miles away from consumers. As our relationship to food dramatically changes, faith traditions are speaking up.
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The Talmud tells a story about a miracle man and mischief-maker named Honi: One day, Honi was walking down a road and saw an old man planting a carob tree. Honi asked the man how many years it would take for the carob tree to bear fruit. The man replied "not for 70 years." Honi asked "silly old man, do you really think you'll live another 70 years to see its fruit?" The old man answered "I found this world planted with carob trees. As my ancestors planted for me, so I will plant for my descendants."

If fruit trees could talk, they might tell you how the production, distribution, and consumption of food has radically changed in their lifetime. Food, once homegrown or produced by small, local farms, is now largely produced by huge corporate, industrialized farms hundreds or thousands of miles away from consumers. As our relationship to food dramatically changes, faith traditions are speaking up.

As a Jewish activist and rabbinical student, I know the work happening in Jewish communities best, which is why in the last part of this series, I looked at how American Jews are uniting Judaism, food and social justice. Here, I'll explore how today's American Jews are promoting environmental sustainability through food. It's my hope that these posts serve as a catalyst for conversation, and I hope that in the comments people will share what's happening in other faith traditions so we can learn from each other's sacred work.

Tending and Tilling the Garden: Sustainability in the Bible

What religious values inform sustainable Judaism? The Torah, the Jewish Bible, is centered around farming and the agricultural cycle. Almost every Jewish holiday has a strong connection to the Earth. But Jewishly, what is the religious meaning of land? Is it just to serve humanity? In Genesis 2:15, the Torah says that God placed humans into the world to "till it and tend it." Finding balance between working the land while caring for the land is at the heart of the Jewish approach.

One example of this balance is the biblical concept of Shmitta, the sabbatical (seventh) year, during which all lands, public and private, must rest uncultivated. Food that naturally grows on the land is open to all, rich and poor, animal and human, but the soil may not be worked for an entire year. This ethic of rest, renewal, and sustained health for both the environment and people lies in stark contrast to the non-stop demands modern farms make on land animals and people. These demands, often caused by economic pressures on farmers from systems of aid and price controls, can lead to erosion, desertification, worker exploitation, and more.

Another relevant Jewish value is ba'al taschit, the prohibition to waste or wantonly destroy. It comes from the biblical prohibition on cutting down fruit trees. Rabbis over the generations have applied the prohibition to wasting or misusing natural resources. Today's Jewish Food Movement applies the value of ba'al taschit when it questions the ethics of shipping vegetables around the world, or the average four pounds of grain it takes to raise a single pound of meat.

Sustainable Jewish Living

Hazon, the largest environmental organization in the American Jewish community and inventors of the term "The New Jewish Food Movement," has pioneered ways for Jewish communities to live by these values. They have challenged the American Jewish community to systemically support local, sustainable agriculture for the past seven years, by launching CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture, a project where a community commits to purchasing an entire season of produce from a local farm) in 45 Jewish communities. Their efforts resulted in over $1 million going to local, sustainable agriculture. Hazon also runs annual food conferences, last year drawing 650 farmers, activists, culinary experts, concerned consumers, and Jewish leaders from across North America to explore healthy and sustainable food systems. Hazon's blog, JCarrot helps create the awareness and conversation that drive the movement, inspiring readers and sharing resources to help think about food choices.

Several Jewish farms, dedicated to growing and to education, have also opened across the nation. Adamah, and Kayam, based in Connecticut and Maryland, respectively, grow delicious produce, offer fellowships in farming and run educational programs that integrate Jewish text study and sustainable agriculture. The Jewish Farm School runs multi-day workshops in organic agriculture, educational gardening, ecological design and natural building across the country, while the Gan Project runs garden and urban homesteading workshops for synagogues, schools, and other organizations in Chicago. Even summer camps are getting in on the action: Eden Village is celebrating its first summer in action, offering organic farming, animal care, and more for hundreds of Jewish campers.

The Jewish food movement understands the deep interconnectedness between the health of humans, the land, and the animals we raise for food. Therefore, organizations like Kol Foods, Mitzvah Meat, Loko, Kosher Conscience, Green Pastures Poultry, Grow and Behold Foods, and Kosher Organics are responding to the growing demand for meat that is both ritually kosher and raised with a consciousness towards environmental sustainability and humane treatment. Their products are available across the East Coast. For more information on all these meat producers, click here.

Preserving the Future

According to Jewish tradition, the earth and its bounty are for us to enjoy and for us to protect. Benefiting from the earth in ways that ensure we maintain ecological balance and health presents moral, spiritual, and practical challenges. These challenges inspire this generation of Jews to act in ways new and ancient to make sure that there are carob, and all other kinds of trees left for their grandchildren to enjoy.

What practices have you implemented in your life for the sake of fully benefiting and protecting both yourself and your food supply? How do they connect with your own faith tradition? Please help continue this critical conversation in the comments below.

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