Culture, Religion

This year in the food desert…

For many American Jews, the Passover seder is an intimate and annual Jewish experience that is possibly the only time of year they will have such an experience. Not just Jews, but even many non-Jews in America enjoy participating in a Passover seder. There is something unique about the Passover seder which forces us to contemplate our role and status in society, our historical memory and our diet. Whether one observes the laws of dietary restrictions for the full 7 or 8 days of the festival, or if one simply partakes in the unique cuisine, one cannot help but reflect on our typical diets in the face of the temporary changes. In our contemporary society we have the freedom to visit supermarkets and specialized stores and purchase food from around the world irrelevant of the season or distance. And yet, at the Passover seder, we are forced to recall what it means to hastily prepare simple loaves transported on back. We recognize, in a certain regard, between the stark difference of experiencing food in servitude and experiencing food in freedom. And while we have the freedom to buy and eat what we want, for a series of reasons we in the 21st century have less freedom and awareness in choosing or understanding how our food is produced and what type of story our food has from farm to table.
Not only does the ritual and cuisine of the Passover seder offer reflection on the abundance of our food in freedom and the strictures on the availability of food in servitude, but we also address, explicitly and directly, the reality of perpetual hunger in our midst. In the era of our Biblical ancestors, out Rabbinic forbears and even into the shtetlakh of our great-grandparents, the reason for perpetual hunger was a lack of resources. In some places there was just not enough good and in traditional, localized communities, from the Rabbinic era (at the earliest) through the dawn of modernity, self-corrective, sustainable community support systems were established to support those who lack essential needs—the kuppah and tamhui, the communal fund and the communal food bank. Today, when most of us live in decentralized, urban or suburban settings where we do not maintain localized economies with self-corrective mechanisms, perpetual hunger in our midst is caused by a wholly different set of issues. Rather than a lack of food—quite to the contrary, we have an incredible abundance of food in the United States, enough in fact to feed other full nations—our set of factors actually make it so that we do have the ability to truly end hunger in our nation.
At the Passover seder we will all read “Let all who are hungry come and eat.” As a good friend of mine once wrote, in our contemporary context it is more likely to have Elijah the Prophet stroll through the door than a local homeless person or poor person. The Passover traditions highlight, in a very real way, the connections between our economy, our food production systems and the hunger we see and know is a problem. As I said above, while we have the freedom to buy what we want, we often lack the knowledge of what is in our food. That is not to say we do not know the list of ingredients, but rather the process by which that food was grown or the product was refined and produced. We do not necessarily know whether or not food products include genetically modified organisms, or if the livestock we consume was fed on GMOs, or if it was raised in a healthy, respectful and ethical manner. We do not know or have a say in the farming practices utilized or how the workers were treated in the production or packaging plants. While we lack the transparency to have full disclosure of these unknowns and more, we do have the choice of what production systems we support. In an age of misleading labels and confusing and competing health claims it becomes very challenging for a busy consumer to know what to do.
For myself, the solution to this multi-faceted and pervasive issue is relatively simple. I believe we can learn an incredible amount from our ancestors’ localized systems of food and communal support. A critical mass of food consciousness is rising and despite this a slew of options become more and more confusing. And yet, a simple solution persists and has been with us from time immemorial. If we want to know what is in our food and the story of food from farm to table, we have the ability and even moral responsibility to construct a reality where we have access to that knowledge. This reality of transparency in food production is not in a far-off fantasy utopia—it is upon us, and as I said, has always been there. When I go to a supermarket, and I am in the produce section, I know that an ear of corn is an ear of corn. If I’m in the freezer section or canned food aisle, I know if there is corn in the bag or can. But I have no knowledge of who grew the corn, where the seeds came from or how it was grown. I likely have no idea where it was grown, and if it’s canned or frozen, when it was grown. While the family farm is not what it once was in the United States, they are far from extinct. By visiting farmer’s markets or joining a CSA, we create the very real possibility of establishing an intimate and meaningful connection to our food production which creates a greater transparency and awareness of the environmental and health impact of our food production. What’s more, I can know what chemicals, if any, were used, even the name of the farmhand. You can develop trust with local farmers which we do not have access to in a typical setting in the 21st century in the United States. For many of us, the ease of going to the supermarket to buy produce and packaged food is taken for granted. But in our urban centers we see growing obesity, diabetes and other health problems in poor communities in higher numbers than other segments in our society. This is easily attributed to what is known as ‘Food Deserts,’ neighborhoods without easy, local access to stores with fresh, whole foods. Rather, in these places, people either have the travel distances of 30 miles in places like rural Mississippi, or rely on fast food, $1 stores, gas stations and convenient stores, or if lucky, discount groceries with produce rejected by major supermarkets in places like LA or NY. Urban gardening is an incredibly successful way to achieve many positive and just changes in these communities. Aside from providing locally produced, whole foods, it also builds community, encourages ownership, stewardship and a connection to one another. It also teaches children important skills and lessons and provides healthy alternatives to cheap, sugar and fatty processed foods. Even more, it has the potential to bride communities traditionally separated by economic gaps, and provides opportunity for more affluent segments of society to support communities in poverty by establishing CSAs around urban gardeners in poor communities which provide income. As demand for locally grown produce increases, based on the natural laws of a capitalist economic system, so too should the supply. And as the supply and demand grow so will the resources and infrastructure necessary to maintain a localized system of food production.
If we move our food systems to localized production we also establish ourselves in better standing to see to societal corrections for where hunger persists. Rather than rely on donation to food banks and soup kitchens, we can rely, as our ancestors did, on local support systems rather than over-sized bureaucracies like food stamp programs or welfare. Not to diminish from the very real success of those programs (food stamps perhaps more so than welfare), I would not want to see their dissolution, but rather to utilize these larger programs in conjunction with the localization of our food systems. Ideally, in such a society, federal agencies would cease to subsidize corn, soy and cotton, but rather based off of wider consumer demand such agencies should reasonably subsidize food production for local, family farms which grow food for human consumption. Localized food production also encourages local economic competition rather than massive conglomerates which monopolize seed production and food distribution.
As we clean our homes and souls of hametz these next few days, let us also reflect on the figurative hametz, or unnecessary and unhelpful aspects, of our food systems and of our own personal consumer choices. What might it look like to do one’s best to source the produce for their seder from a local farmer, where possible? How might our reflections on our physical freedom change in the face of both our freedom of choice and our restriction of knowledge and awareness? When we open our doors and invite the hungry this year, let us reflect on how our own consumer choices could have an effect, positive or negative, on the lives of others. I encourage all of us this Passover season to spend the time asking ourselves these difficult questions and encourage us also to look towards the other side of these narrow straits towards the promise of a better and healthier society, in body and environment, for future generations.
This year we are servants in the straits of hunger, poverty and environmental destruction, next year may we celebrate the freedom of having a control and a share in our food production. This year in food deserts, next year in food justice.

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