Culture, Justice

Decade in Review: Jewish Food Movement

Jewschool’s decade-in-review series began with the best JewFilms of the 2000s, and Independent Minyanim, and continues with this roundup of the Jewish Food Movement.
This last decade has seen a burgeoning of awareness into the source of our food, our lack of connection to our food systems and the environmental and health problems inherent in factory farm methods.
The Jewish community, like many communities around the country and globe, became much more active and involved in their food systems and spent much of the last decade establishing the foundations for real change that will bring us into the next decade with a better posture to protect our food security and protect our environment.
In 2000, a book came on the scene that, at the time, received little attention, but soon would be on many reading lists. I’m referring to Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America by Stephen Bloom, who wrote of a small group of New York Lubavitcher Hasidim who ventured to Postville, IA to run the Agriprocessors meat plant in 1987. No matter which way you look at it, this last decade in food in terms of Jewish community and involvement is most notably marked by the emergence of reports of worker and animal abuse and illegal activity in America’s largest kosher slaughter house.
Of course, it would not be until 2008 that ICE would raid the Agriprocessors plant, creating a media frenzy that I’m not even going to link to because it was so widespread. Before that point, major developments were underway throughout the Jewish world to create a more just and sustainable world for us and future generations.
In March of 2000, Hazon commenced its first bike ride, beginning in Seattle, WA and biking across the continent to Washington, DC. Eventually morphing into a force to be reckoned with, Hazon began annually offering bike rides in the US and Israel, Tu BiShvat seders, and food conferences, and today also organizes a wide network of CSAs with synagogues. Hazon has forced us to grapple with our traditions and our values and the struggles with face with the modern world. The picture above is of a goat which would soon be slaughtered in a public display of kosher slaughter at the first Hazon Food Conference in 2006 to provide an educational opportunity for individuals who have little to no intimate knowledge or connection with our food production–in following years, the educational experiences have included the slaughtering of turkeys and chickens. Hazon forces us to recognize the values inherent in our tradition, where contemporary society may support or fall short of those purported values, and how we can actualize our Jewish identities in our food, not just in recipes and flavors, but also in ethics and values and a sense of repairing the world.
And, of course, it’s not just Hazon alone, but the groups and people Hazon supports or has inspired. The likes of the Jewish Food Educational Network, the Jewish Farm School, the Jewish Climate Change Campaign and so much more. All of this goes alongside and in cooperation with groups like Adamah at Isabella Freedman, which trains young leaders in sustainability, organic farming, Jewish education/learning and community building, the continued success of the Teva Learning Center (an older, but still thriving Jewish environmental institute). In 2006 the internet was gifted with The Jew and the Carrot, providing an online community for what has been dubbed the “New Jewish Food Movement.”
As we will never forget, in 2008, the Jewish community and the greater country was shocked by the massive immigration raid on the Agriprocessors plant. But, for those interested in animal rights, Postville came on the scene fully in 2004 when PETA released graphic and brutal videos of cattle being abused in the most heinous ways, which not only brought the ethics of industrialized meat production into question, but also forced the Jewish community to look at the ethics of kosher slaughter. Over the next 4 years more and more reports of grander and more illegal activity would trickle into the media and, well, the rest is history and kosher meat in America will never be the same for it. Rather than get down into the negatives of the criminal activities of the Rubashkin family, let’s look at the amazing things which came out of this debacle–most notably, Uri L’Tzedek and their Tav Ha’Yosher initiative and Magen Tzedek and their Hekhsher Tzedek initiative.
When kosher symbols became a staple of American food production, as I understand it, the idea was to make it possible for Jewish consumers to continue to eat a traditional kosher diet while participating in American culture and having the opportunity to embrace consumer and popular culture. The next generation of labeling packaged products is coming in the form of notifying the consumer not just of the the product meeting the standards of Jewish dietary law, but also to meet some of the standards of Jewish law regarding workers rights. Truly, both initiatives show great strides in demanding justice in our communities. Yet, what Uri L’Tzedek has striven to implement marks a significant sociological turn in the Orthodox community towards a more vocal and active stance towards social justice. From my own knowledge of kosher meat production, it is clear that the main thrust to make any change must come from within the community which, frankly, has always been the source of trusted, properly prepared kosher meat–whether in the context of individual or corporate production. Hopefully in the next decade much of that work will be fruitful.
In light of all of that, this cannot be written without giving mention to some of the work that is being done to localize kosher meat production. Most notably is KOL Foods, started by Devorah Kimelman-Block, which connects communities with ranchers and ritual slaughterers by allowing consumers to order glatt kosher meat which is truly sustainable. If I lived within local shipping distance, I may choose to no longer be a vegetarian… And KOL Foods is not alone, while I do not know specifics (not so relevant, per the previous comment) I do know there are other people creating outlets for sustainable and humane kosher meat.
One Jew in particular who has made an incredible impact on food in America in the last decade is Michael Pollan, the now famous author of many books including The Botany of Desire, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, In Defense of Food, and most recently, Food Rules. The last three have, perhaps more than any other single source, made the most noticeable impact on the way Americans eat today. As someone who has been conscious and aware of many of the problems, both in terms of our bodies and our environment, of industrial food production, it is amazing to watch the impact of Pollan’s work. In the so-called “Jewish Food Movement” he has even been given the honorary title “Reb Pollan”. It is near impossible in the last 5 years or so to have a conversation about food without his work coming up. Having never read any of it, I can’t speak to his work, but I can speak to its impact and what I see is very positive in terms of the easy and necessary steps each of us can take in our consumer choices that will undoubtedly have an incredibly positive impact on our food, our health, our economy and our environment.
It is simply not arguable that the developments of the last decade have created a reality where we have little to no control over our food production. Not only that, we have little to no knowledge of what precisely that food production is. The most prevalent example that can be presented is that of Genetically Modified Organisms, or GMOs, which are genetically engineered food stuffs that are the result of genes from non-food organisms inserted into the genetic code of a food item to alter its properties by adding or taking away characteristics. For example, much of the corn grown today in America internally creates its own pesticide. America and Israel are the two largest producers of GMOs in the world. There are currently five primary, widespread GMOs in the marketplace, and of those soy and corn are the most prevalent; an estimated 85% of the soy supply and 45% of the corn supply in the United States is genetically engineered. And if you eat any food in a package, and you read the ingredients, you have a pretty high chance that there is one or more soy and/or corn product, and if you eat animals, the animals ate the soy and corn, and if it wasn’t organic you can be pretty confident that product contains GMOs. The scientific research, like on climate change or circumcision, largely tends to go according to ideological lines and is “inconclusive,” however in this case, it’s also largely, well, not so much researched.
One Jewish individual who deserves a very loud shout-out in this capacity is Zelig Golden, of the Center for Food Safety. Because of the work of CFS the Supreme Court will be hearing a case for the first time on the issue, and hopefully because of the work of Zelig and others consumers will be protected from the potentially harmful effects of genetically engineered foods.
While there is much to be done, the amazing pace at which the knowledge and awareness around issues of food safety, food security, food justice, food production and distribution, hunger, poverty, health care, education and the economy, and how interwoven all of these issues truly are has been made clear in the first decade of the millennium. What I have seen personally, on a very grass-roots level, and simply in terms of what people are putting into their mouths, where they choose to get it from and how people speak about food, it is clear the next decade will, God willing, see many of the necessary changes that can and must be made.
The spread of urban gardening (and crazy-ass things like this!), farmers markets, CSAs and the merit of local food is significant and the more the Jewish community adopts it, the better it will be not only for our larger communities, but even for our Jewish identities.
For the next 10 years, if we all did what we could each day to buy local, in season food when and where we can, and to make relationships with our food through the farmers that produce it, rather than relying on chemical companies like Monsanto and DuPont to create and even copyright our seeds; if for the next 10 years we plant gardens in our own yards, in window boxes in our apartments, on fire escapes, on flat roofs, at our synagogues and our Federation buildings, at our day schools and our universities. If, for the next 10 years we each committed, when and where we can to take on any or all of these types of things and more, in 2020 we may be looking back on a very, very different decade. And just as important as each and any and all of these things, make sure to register early for the fifth annual 2010 Hazon Food Conference, who knows what kind of animal they’ll slaughter for you next year!

4 thoughts on “Decade in Review: Jewish Food Movement

  1. Just wanted to make sure you saw this opinion-editorial I co-wrote with Urban Harvest for yesterdays Omaha World-Herald about urban and vertical gardening in the heart of Africa’s large slum Kibera in Nairobi, Kenya. Here is the link, post to our blog at the Worldwatch Institute called “Nourishing the Planet”:
    All the best, Danielle Nierenberg (

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