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A Vision of Food Justice

A Vision of Food Justice

What did you do to commemorate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. this year? I spent the weekend with Reform congregation KAM Isaiah-Israel in Hyde Park, Chicago, learning about food. KAM, the oldest Reform congregation in the Midwest, has a strong tradition of social justice activism and hosts an MLK weekend event each year. So what is "food justice," and why is food a civil rights issue?

The Urban & Environmental Policy Institute defines food justice as " everyone having enough to eat; healthy food for our children; food that doesn't contain harmful things that we don't know about; freedom to grow our own food; ability to buy food directly from farmers; fair wages for those who grow, cook and work with food."

It seems like a relatively simple - and wonderfully sustainable - idea, but as I learned this weekend, our current food production and distribution system falls short on each of these criteria. The weekend began with Erica Allen of Growing Power, an urban agriculture organization working for food justice in Chicago and Milwaukee, giving insight into the problem: food deserts in urban neighborhoods nationwide, a stunning lack of healthy, nutritious food in public schools, and the lost connection between urban and suburban youth (and grown-ups as well!) and our land and the food that comes from it.

Her presentation was followed by a conversation with local experts on sustainable agriculture, food access and safety, composting, and more. The speakers outlined a few of the emerging alternatives to the industrial food system, and I was proud to join the panel to speak about the new URJ Shulchan Yarok, Shulchan Tzedek initiative on sustainable, ethical, Jewish eating.
Erica, daughter of Growing Power founder and MacArthur genius grantee Will Allen, inspired us to action not just with shocking statistics about food access (or lack thereof), but with the stories of the children she has empowered to be part of the solution by growing their own food and finding good jobs and strong communities in the process.

Our food production, distribution, and delivery system is overwhelmingly complex, and has implications for health care, the environment, labor, and more. The system is not sustainable for people or the planet. A truly just food system would be built on responsible land use, universal access to fresh, healthy food, respect and fair pay for farm workers, and awareness of how our food choices affect ourselves, our communities, and our earth. The challenge may seem insurmountable, but once we begin to explore alternatives -community supported agriculture, farmers' markets, community gardens, local/fair-trade/organic food - we see that not only can we make a difference in our food system but when we do, so many positive consequences flow from this choice. As green architect Michael Corbet says "You know you're on the right track if your solution to one problem accidentally solves several others."

And this is a lesson that KAM has learned from their synagogue garden: when we come together to grow our food together, prepare meals, and enjoy delicious and healthy food at a communal table, we build stronger communities. I hope congregations across North America will learn from this model in tackling food issues in their own communities, and will find our resources useful as they do so!

Dr. King was a man of incredible vision, and this weekend I envisioned what a "food just" society would look like. Growing Power has a vision too, of "Inspiring communities to build sustainable food systems that are equitable and ecologically sound, creating a just world, one food-secure community at a time." I hope it's a challenge we can all embrace.

Published: 1/20/2010

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