Over 500 Jews, from across the country, all walks of life, all types of observance, all interested in food. We are convened at the beautiful Alisomar Conference Center near Monterey, CA, for sessions ranging from pickle making to informational sessions on Jewish Farm School education.
I just got out of a premier showing of Food Stamped (website under construction). The short film was made by the husband/wife team of Shira and Yoav Potash. She is a nutrition educator, he is a film maker, they joined forces to make a film on food. The basic premise: Live on food stamps for one week, and eat healthfully. And they did! In doing so, they learned a little bit about the struggles of budget eating, and illuminate many of the problems with our subsidized economy. for some “off the cuff” thoughts about the film, click below

Some of the most scary elements the mention in the film is the rapid rate of the rise of obesity in America as processed foods inundated our markets. They also mention that as the cost of processed food-stuffs (i.e., junk food) has decreased, the cost of fresh produce has increased. The US Farm Bill has devastated poor communities. One of the communities they visit in the film, West Oakland, has NO grocery stores. This means people are using their food stamps in convenient stores and living off of what foods they can purchase there.
We live in a country that produces enough food to feed the entire world more than once over, yet so many of our citizens go hungry or live off of foods that are high in fat and calories, and low in nutrition. It doesn’t have to be like this.
As our economy continues to plummet, many of us will be forced to live on tight food budgets. This does not necessarily mean we will choose food stamps, but the necessity to manage our money more appropriately and ration our food supplies more effectively will soon effect more and more of us. We have options.
In this way, the message of Food Stamped transcends food stamps, and touches on issues of budgeting and waste. We live in a reality where our government pays farmers to not grow food, and if they do grow food they grow food for cattle. The environmental devastation wrought by the industrialized cattle industry is beyond repair and has a huge impact on climate change and other environmental issues.
While the film itself does not touch on these issues, it reminds me of the importance of moderating our consumption and being more mindful of the source of our foods. Again, as our economy continues to head deeper into the shitter (to use the technical term), we may all find ourselves in need of tighter budgeting. In many communities, especially poor communities, budget eating means crappy eating. This is largely due to education (or lack thereof), which seems to be the primary message of the film. That the first step of action is to educate those on food stamps to make better food choices. But this is not possible in communities like West Oakland, which do not have grocers. People choose chips, cookies and sugary drinks because that is what is available.
The more we buy such products, the more we encourage their production. We have a responsibility, in my opinion, to tell our elected officials not just by letters and phone calls, but also by our purchasing power. If we opt out of the economy of junk food, if we instead select local, seasonal produce, we will effect the supply and demand of the market and we will send the message to the food producers that we desire, we NEED, healthier more sustainable options.
As Jews in America, we have more affluence than many communities. While this gives us access to healthier food options, it does not take away our responsibility towards others to educate and help provide them with access to better foods. As we were exiled from our native land so many generations ago, we have lost our knowledge of indigenous food production and consumption. This has led to a kosher food industry that utilizes the same model of food production as the general American economy. People (mainly non-Jews, it seems) seem to believe that kosher=healthy. This is obviously as false as the adage that kosher=ethical. Our tradition charges us to be mindful of our food, at least in its ideal. Our tradition charges us to be mindful of our neighbors, at least in its ideal. How, then, do we sit back so easily when those around us are forced to feed their families on food that provides no nutrition, no substance, and leads to massive epidemic of obesity and both child and late onset-diabetes?
At one point in the film, Shira, while teaching a classroom of children about nutrition, held up a can of processed beans, and said for $1 you can feed three people. Then she held up a bag of dried beans, and said for $1 you can feed 12 people. Do the math. We have allowed convenience to influence our food choices. Convenience, however, has blinded us to feed our families junk disguised as food.
After the Rubashkin’s shonde, food issues are on the minds of many Jewish communities. Here at the 3rd annual Hazon Food Conference, there are more than a handful of Jews not only interested in learning more, but interested in doing more. I wonder what a Jewish world galvanized to work towards food justice and food security would look like. I hope that one silver lining of the global economic and food crises will be that galvanization, not just of Jewish communities, but of all communities.
We no longer can afford the luxury to sit back and watch our food supply be poisoned by chemicals and additives. We no longer can afford the luxury to let our government rip us further and further from our food source. In my opinion, we have the ethical obligation as humans and the religious obligation as Jews to assure sustainable, healthy foods for ALL people. If we can bring ourselves to be more conscious of issues surrounding food justice and food security we will prevent debacles like what happened in Postville from occurring. If we bring ourselves to be more conscious of what less affluent communities struggle with in feeding their families, perhaps our tzedakah (charity) will look different.
We owe it to our planet, ourselves, our neighbors, and our future generations to strive towards food security and food justice for all people. Shira and Yoav lived off food stamps for one week, and learned a world’s worth of lessons. I am not calling on anyone to emulate their acts, other than the consciousness and mindfulness that went into their purchases.
We have options, options that no one can take away from us. Food is still grown from the earth, even if we buy it in a store. There are factors at play (i.e., Monsanto) that seek to take away our options. We live in a capitalist society that is market-based. By virtue of that, it is based in a supply and demand framework. If we demand healthy options, they will be supplied. We have options at our disposal to pursue food justice and food security even within the capitalist system. We have the options to support farmers and farmers markets, we have the options to utilize Community Supported Agriculture and community gardens. We have the options to demand more appropriate land use (i.e., vacant lots converted to urban gardens). But, none of this is possible if we do not demand that it be supplied.
Again, we owe it to our planet, to ourselves, to our neighbors and to your future generations.
Look for a pre-Shabbos post from the Hazon Food Conference, tomorrow.