Jewish Traditions / Sustainable Food Systems

Below is the full text of Friday night’s keynote at The Hazon Food Conference.  The keynote was given by Nati Passow, co-founder of The Jewish Farm School.  It’s a long post, but definitely worth the read – even if you have to print it out (on recycled paper of course!) and take it home.


(Nati’s on the right, next to Simcha Schwartz.  Photo by Sabrina Malach.)

Hazon Food Conference
December 6-9, 2007
Keynote Address: Nati Passow

Thank you Nigel. Shabbat Shalom and Chanukah Sameach. It is a great honor to be here with you all tonight. Nigel suggested that I begin by sharing my story with you, my connection and relationship to food, which I think is a great way to begin this talk, because one of the things I like most about food is that sitting down to a meal is a great excuse to spend time with friends and listen to each other’s stories. So here is a little bit of mine.

Seven years ago I took a Sabbatical. I left university for the year and traveled in Israel. I studied in yeshiva, toured the country and then settled into an apartment in Jerusalem. After having little success finding a job, I decided to enjoy my sabbatical for what it was time to just be present. This was when I discovered good coffee, which for any honorable coffee drinker is a moment you never forget. An older friend of mine sat me down and said that if I was going to drink coffee everyday, I should make it good. Buy whole beans, grind them myself and brew something delicious.

The coffee was my gateway drug to the world of slow food.

I had been cooking since I was 10, but it was this time in Jerusalem when my relationship to food transformed. Several times a week I would go to shuk, the historic open-air food market in Jerusalem, to buy my fresh, raw ingredients. I experimented with different dishes. I began making my own chai. Slow, deliberate meals, because I really didn’t have much else to do. This experience taught me about the intangible element of food. That somehow a dish prepared with love and mindfulness will be qualitatively different than one prepared with the same ingredients but with little care or intention. Seven years ago I didn’t necessarily make the connection between my newfound relationship to food and the fact that it was a Shemittah year, but in retrospect it all makes sense.

Upon my return to the states and my final year in college, cooking became an even more
central part of my life. My roommate and I would ride our bikes all over town to get certain ingredients from specific places. We would spend hours preparing meals, and hours cleaning up the mess. Through weekly potlucks at my neighbor’s I saw how food could be a nexus for building community.

The summer after I graduated I even started my own iced chai business. Each week I would brew a fresh batch and bike it over to an area coffee shop where it was sold under the name “Nati’s Not Hot Tea.” It brought in a whopping $30 a week. Needless to say, I
moved onto other things.

simcha.jpgFor the past several years I have had the privilege of working in gardens and on farms. I started several small educational gardens and currently work at a ½ acre urban farm at a public high school in Philadelphia. A few years ago I co-founded the Jewish Farm School with the mission to practice and promote sustainable agriculture. Several individuals from the Farm School are here at this conference.

At my home in West Philly we grow vegetables and herbs in our small urban plot. We keep 4 chickens in the backyard, a small act of civil disobedience for the sake of fresh eggs. Last summer I was able to achieve one of my life goals-being a professional okra farmer-when we sold some of our harvest at a local farmer’s market.

When I’m working in a garden it is definitely work. Debbie Harris, the main farmer at my current job is a magician with the land. She can look at a plot and know what needs to happen. I picture her waiving her hands and magically transforming seeds into plants and plants into food. For me it is not that easy. It is something I enjoy tremendously, but not something that comes so naturally to me.

Where I feel most in my element with respect to food is when I cook. I was told once that I have good instincts in the kitchen, and I like to think of it that way. I don’t use recipes and anytime I make something it will be a little different than the previous version. I love opening the fridge and assembling a meal out of what I happen to find. For years I have been trying to improve on my ability to eat mindfully.  At this conference last year I participated in Jay Michelson’s eating meditation workshop and it was  transformative. Since last year’s conference I have been more successful in my attempts to truly eat when I eat, and I find that to be an essential responsibility for me, the consumer. If I insist on eating food that is grown with mindfulness, I would imagine the grower would insist on growing food that is eaten with mindfulness.

This is why I am so excited to be at this conference and to have the opportunity to share a few thoughts with all of you; because I believe that our relationship to food is a great judge of our character, on both personal and societal levels. When we as individuals have no idea where our food comes from or how to pronounce half of the ingredients, what does that say about our connection to the land? When the poorest communities in our country have little access to fresh, local, healthy food, how does that reflect on the rest of the rest of us? What does that say about the food systems we helped create and we support on a daily basis?

But despite these challenges there is also a growing movement of people who are reclaiming power over their food. Maybe they are doing it by growing their own, or by joining a CSA, or by making more informed decisions at the market. Regardless of the path, they all lead to a more just and sustainable food system.

Philadelphia as a Model

I want to spend a little time talking about Philadelphia, a place that reflects some of the challenges being faced in many large urban centers in this country, but also is at the forefront of the urban agriculture and local food movement. I admittedly have the ulterior motive of trying to get as many good people as possible to move to West Philly, so if you are interested, see me after the talk.

For the past two years I have worked for an organization called the Urban Nutrition Initiative whose mission it is to educate youth and adults in low-income communities about healthy eating habits and lifestyle choices. UNI does this through cooking and nutrition classes, school gardens, community fitness nights and other forms of outreach.

My position at UNI has been working in their model school garden, a ½ acre urban farm from which food is used for these cooking classes as well as sold at affordable prices at neighborhood farmer’s markets and a local food co-op.

The garden employs about 10-15 high school students who plant, maintain, harvest and sell the produce. For many of them, it is simply a job when they begin working in the garden; they have no background in organic agriculture, cooking or nutrition. It’s a fairly simple way for them to earn a few bucks. It has been a very eye-opening two years working in one of the most challenging public schools in the city. I am often presented with situations that I simply do not know how to deal with. But what is most relevant is what I have seen among the students in terms of their understanding about food and nutrition.

There are times when students come out to the garden after school and are dead tired. What did you eat today? I might ask. Nothing is the most common response. Cheeseburger and cheese steak a close second. In the summer when work starts at 8:30 students often arrive with a plastic bottle of “juice;” red high fructose corn syrup and nothing more. And even when they are eating vegetables, they are often frozen, covered in hydrogenated oil and salt to compensate for the lack of flavor. And these eating habits have an enormous impact on the health and mood and behavior of the students. They are tired, overweight, ornery and sick.

And these are the teens enrolled in a nutrition program! These are the students who have all been told about the dangers of high fructose corn syrup and diet related diseases. They see it first hand among their families and their neighbors. And yet there is still some disconnect between what they know they should eat and what they actually do. Maybe it is the fact that they are inundated with advertising, or that the only restaurants in their neighborhoods are fast food places, or that their parents are working two or three jobs and don’t have time to cook. Whatever it is, there is an entire generation growing up with absolutely no idea what healthy food is.

And this, I think is the most important lesson I have learned doing this work in Philadelphia. Our national eating disorder does not exist in a vacuum. The food most people in this country eat is a byproduct of a much larger disorder-the non-sustainable systems that drive the mainstream culture of consumption. Food has been sucked into that system and is produced and traded like any other commodity, with the short-term bottom line being the most important thing. And this is the energy, the intangible element of food that most Americans are fueling their bodies with. Is it any wonder we are the nation that consumes the most, pollutes the most, suffers from a skyrocketing array of food allergies. A population afflicted by the most diet-related illnesses? Clearly something has gone terribly wrong.

So this is why food is at the root of any large-scale transformation that will happen. When we close the loop on our food system, when we establish a connection with the people growing our food, preparing our food and selling our food, when we turn food into a true celebration of the miracle that it is, we will begin to transform our communities in radical ways.

Artist Paul Cezanne wrote, “The day is coming when a single carrot, freshly observed, will set off a revolution.” Or as a friend of mine in West Philly, Rachel Katz said even more eloquently, “You know, part of the revolution is not eating crappy food.” And we see this as a reality. In every progressive community you will find some alternative to the mainstream food system. Food is a foundation for new social movements. The revolution will be well fed.

So what are the efforts currently underway in Philadelphia? To give just a few examples, there is Mill Creek Farm, an urban farm in a low-income community that transformed a vacant lot into a ½ acre organic farm where they sell their produce right in the neighborhood.

The Fair Food Project finds markets for local farmers in restaurants and through their farm stand. Ann Karlen, the director, recently spoke at the Jewish Farm School’s Urban Sustainability Conference about the need to upscale the local market. She envisions supermarkets that sell nothing but locally grown and produced food. She also talked about the growing farm to institution movement that is working with colleges, hospitals and schools to get local food into their cafeterias.

farmtocity.gifTwo organizations, Farm to City and the Food Trust, facilitate numerous farmer’s markets throughout the city and several CSAs including the Tuv Ha’Aretz site in Elkins Park. There are the two chapters of the all-volunteer organization Food Not Bombs who find ways to tap into the inherent waste of the industrial food system, redirect the surplus onto their bikes and prepare hot meals every week for anyone in need.

And finally, there is the City Harvest program, in which prisoners learn vocational skills by managing a green house at the prison. They then send their starts out to 25 different community gardens that, in turn, donate the food grown to area food banks, thereby providing local, healthy food for those in most need.

This is just a small sample of the work going on in Philadelphia on an organizational level. This speaks nothing of the hundreds of community gardens throughout the city or the efforts that individuals are making to make our food system more sustainable. So the challenges are large but the movement toward a better way is strong and inspired. And as we work to develop a healthier relationship to food, we should keep two things in mind that we have going for us. First, when we talk about industrial agriculture as being non-sustainable, that means it cannot keep going. It may take a while, but whether we want it to or not, these systems will eventually fail. Some would say they already are failing. Which means that we don’t need to topple the empire, so to speak. Instead we need to focus our energies on creating more just and sustainable alternatives. And this is the task of the new Jewish food movement-to learn from our tradition of using food for the benefit of all of society, not just the wealthy, not just the privileged, and renew our food systems.

Second, we have another crucial thing on our side. Real food is delicious. I’ve heard the expression, “eat to live, don’t live to eat.” The idea being, don’t just go from one meal to the next always thinking about food. But I believe that as a society, we could use a little more living to eat. We need to give more attention to our food, not less. We need to celebrate real food, not consume it in liquid or energy bar form. We need to take hour long lunches, have meals with friends, bake our own bread, brew our own beer, grow our own corn.

Judaism and Food

So what role does Judaism play in this? What exactly does it mean to create a new Jewish food movement, rather than simply a new food movement? Our agricultural laws describe a system in which the needs of all people are considered. Through various practices we see a unique understanding of the holiness of food, its potential for good, and most importantly, that all people should have access to it with respect and dignity. The Mariposa food co-op in West Philly has a unique practice. Members in good standing are given keys and can shop 24 hours a day by simply writing down what they purchase and paying for it during normal business hours. A store with an honor system.

It occurred to me that this procedure, regardless of its original intention, allows people in the community who might desperately need food they cannot afford a way of getting it without shame or embarrassment. So maybe the rest of the community is bearing financial responsibility for it, but isn’t that what it’ all about in the first place?

So Judaism tells us what to grow and how to grow it, how to slaughter it and eat it, how to acknowledge its physical and spiritual source, and to do all of this with gratitude. But of all the agricultural laws we find in Torah and the Talmud, Shemittah is one that I’m finding myself most drawn to. Perhaps it is because it is part of the cycle of Shabbat, which is a foundation in my own connection to Judaism. Or perhaps it is because it touches on so many levels, both practical and philosophical.

shem.jpgShemittah, the sabbatical year in which all land is allowed to rest, all debt is forgiven, all slaves are freed, a year in which there is no private property and resources are shared by all members of the community, rich and poor. A year that recognizes the importance of reflection and separation from work. That honors the sacredness of food, and its role in building community. What a completely radical idea.

So this is the motivation behind the work of the Jewish Farm School, to learn how to inform contemporary issues with the values of our tradition. We began two years ago with a mini grant from Hazon to run a four-day workshop on educational gardening. We have run that program for two years in partnership with the Teva Learning Center and will run it again this June.

Last year we received another mini-grant form Hazon , this time to run an Urban Sustainability Conference, which we did this past October. Hazon helped us produce our beautiful JFS calendars, which we will have at Sunday’s farmer’s market. Hazon gave us so much support and encouragement that we decided to just move in, and beginning January 1st, as we work toward our greater vision, we will formally be incubated by Hazon.

This coming year we will be running two domestic service learning trips with Hillel, one at Kayam Farm at the Pearlstone Retreat Center on the East Coast and a second out in California. We will also be partnering with Kayam on an intensive Permaculture workshop this June.

In the long term we hope to one day have our own land and create a space to provide accredited farm-based education to high school and college-aged students. As we work toward this goal we are both reaching out to the general community and simultaneously developing our own skills. We learn through teaching. And our work is also a celebration of that which is good in the world. At our recent Urban Sustainability Conference we showcased local efforts underway to make Philadelphia a more sustainable city. JFS is working alongside cutting edge organizations, both Jewish and non, in order to work toward a more sustainable future.

This idea is also visible in the work of Hazon, its Tuv Ha’Aretz program, and this Food Conference. Hazon is not just teaching people about ancient ideas. Hazon is propelling the Jewish community forward with respect to our relationship to food, farming and the environment.

Vision for the Future

seeds.jpgSo on this day, Shabbat Chanukah, in a week in which we literally bring light into the darkness, a holiday that teaches us that miracles are, in fact, quite possible, I offer two ways we as individuals and as a community can help cultivate the new Jewish food movement; one that is very tangible and accessible, the other more philosophical and challenging.

First, in whatever form works for you, try to close the gap between the food you eat and the people who grow it. Maybe that means joining or starting a Tuv Ha’aretz CSA, or going to a farmer’s market for produce. Or holding your conferences at a place like Freedman where you can eat food grown on site. Perhaps it is planting some tomatoes in a pot on your porch or in your window, or maybe it means expanding your already productive garden.

And if you already grow lots of food, try to raise the bar even more. Preserve your harvest in the fall so you can eat locally all winter. Save your seeds for next season so that you can close one more loop in your process of growing food.

On the most basic level, take a moment to give thanks before and after you eat. Visually trace your food back to its source and see how accurately you can do it. After your meal picture how you will use the energy you just consumed. What work will you now be able to do?

And this can begin right now, at this conference. Introduce yourself to some of the food growers who worked so hard in the field, or some of the cooks who put their energy into your meals. Get to know them a little, listen to their stories. Make your experience with this food that much more rich as it becomes a conduit for human interaction.

I think this idea has universal appeal. No matter where you live or what you do you can always move one step closer to the source of your food. The way kashrut manifests in the traditional communities teaches us an important lesson; Jews are willing to go to great lengths to meet their religious dietary needs-wouldn’t it be incredible if more Jews understood issues of local and sustainably grown food in religious terms?

The second suggestion I have is that we, as a community, really examine this whole notion of Shemittah. That we really work to understand how it might manifest in our contemporary lives. That we seek to find ways to dedicate the next six years to preparing, in some form or another, for the next Shemittah year.

We are in the middle of the Shemittah year and it’s all the rage, people are excited about this idea and are using it to talk about food, the environment and poverty. But few were talking about it last year, and even fewer the year before that. But for six years we are to work our land, and in the seventh year we are to let it rest. There is a direct relationship between the six years and the seventh, the same way the six days of the week are in permanent relationship to the seventh day, Shabbat.

Which puts us in a very delightful position. I have been feeling a sort of regret this year, wishing I had planned ahead enough to take another Sabbatical, and I know there are others in the room who share this feeling. So let us learn from these feelings of regret and transform them into something productive. We have the remainder of this year to be present and enjoy the Shemittah year. To learn, to discuss, to envision the society that upheld this practice. And to prepare ourselves for what begins on next Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of the next Shemittah period.

So this is my question to all of us, this is my vision for the new Jewish Food Movement. How can we spend the next six years preparing for the Shemittah? What does it mean for all of us, regardless of our profession or position in society, to observe the Shemittah year? How can we manifest the values that are so powerfully taught through this practice?

The notion that the land is not ours and that the benefit we can derive from the land ought to be shared. That food is sacred and should not be bought and sold like other commodities. That the processes of growing, preparing, trading and consuming food should nourish our bodies and our souls, ourselves and our communities, and restore health and beauty to the land.

So what might this look like? Yigal Deutscher, who farms in Israel, envisions using the next six year to plan and plant his land in accordance with Permaculture principles so that for next Shemittah year he can truly not work the land and yet continue to live off of it. But what if you aren’t a farmer, what does it mean to observe the Shemittah? What does it mean for a chef to let the land lie fallow? Or a doctor, or a Rabbi or an educator? Or a non-profit administrator? This is my question to all of us.

How radically transformed would the Jewish community be if in seven years every Jewish institution somehow looked tangibly different? And what would we, collectively, need to do for the next six in order to make this happen? Maybe over the next six years the Jewish Farm School will impose a self-taxation policy so that next Shemittah year we won’t have to charge for a single program. I’m not sure, it’s just an idea, but this is the type of thinking I want to encourage.

I would suggest that this conference be a forum for such a discussion and that there be at least one session on Shemittah at each of the next six conferences, or really at every conference. And not simply a session that describes the law but one in which we really work toward to the next Shemittah.

Shemittah is not some abstract idea. Shemittah is not only about the meticulous examination of seeds germinating in the soil or loopholes to allow Israeli farmers to continue to grow food. It can be a radical paradigm shift for the Jewish community as a whole.

In conclusion I’d like to ask that you please close your eyes. Take a moment to imagine what you would do with a Sabbatical year? What would it mean for you, in your life, to let the land rest? A year in which you were forbidden to work, but in which your survival was dependent on communal resources. A year in which you turn your focus away from personal benefit to public benefit, from material needs to communal needs, from worldly pursuits to spiritual pursuits. What does that look like? What do you have to do to make it happen? What do we all have to do to make it happen?

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4 Responses to “Jewish Traditions / Sustainable Food Systems”

  1. Hannah Lee Says:

    Wow, this should have been printed locally.
    Thanks, Leah, for drawing our attention to Nati’s speech.

  2. Jonathan Silverman Says:

    This is so inspirational. Thanks for sharing your visions. I would enjoy meeting with you Nati!

    I have been on sabbatical for 4 years now and have too discovered the wonders of being transformed by nature. I became environmentally aware of food, building communities, educating children, and been very active in agricultural farming.

    San Francisco, CA

  3. modern pilates courses Says:

    So movable and emotional post and i am really enjoying every sentence and just imagined a vivid story while i just reading the post.

    Making your own society, friend circle, food habit and everything is on your own hand and you have to manage all this things with proper justification. You environment has huge reflection on your own mind and it always play a part to built your own habit as well.

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