What do you get when you cross Friday night with with more than 350 ethically-aware, foodie Jews? Shabbat dinner at Hazon’s Food Conference! The harder question is, what do you feed them?
Bay Area resident, Roger Studley, is currently working to create a kosher, free-range/humanely-slaughtered meat business on the West Coast. In the meantime, he is busy coordinating the schecting and preparation of nearly 20 heritage turkeys, which – if all goes as planned – will be served to conference participants on Shabbat. As far as I know (and as far as my little bit of researching/asking around has revealed), this is the first time a Jewish conference has ever sourced its own kosher meat directly from a local farmer – aside from Hazon’s food conference last year, of course!
The Jew & The Carrot got in touch with Roger to find out how planning was going, and hear his opinion on Agriprocessors, the Jewish vegetarian debate, and his vision for the future of kosher food.
Read the interview below the jump and join the fun by registering for Hazon’s Food Conference here.
How did you become interested in bringing local, humanely raised kosher meat to Bay Area residents?
My interest in local, humanely raised kosher meat has evolved over several years, as my “food consciousness”, along with that of many other people, has gradually been raised. Jewish law requires that meat be kosher. But most meat available in this country, kosher and otherwise, involves serious ethical and nutritional compromises.
With few exceptions, someone who keeps kosher and eats meat has to settle for meat from animals that are injected with hormones, given large amount of antibiotics, not fed their natural food, and raised, for much or all of their lives, in squalor and confinement. This is a terrible compromise to have to make in order to keep kosher. I want meat that is kosher and ethically produced. I want Jews not to have to compromise in order to eat kosher meat.
You recently left your job at the University of California to pursue this work full-time. Was there an “a-ha” moment, when you realized this was the path you wanted to follow?
I worked for the UC system for eight years as a policy analyst. My focus was undergraduate admissions policy — issues of college access, such as affirmative action — and for a long time I loved the work. But eventually I wanted to move on. At the same time, UC was facing a budgetary crisis and pressure to trim its administration. They offered severance to anyone willing to leave, and for me the offer was too good to refuse. So I didn’t.
I actually had three exciting ideas for what to do next. I could finish my long-dormant dissertation in economics; I could pursue my plans to start a Jewish non-profit; Or I could start a business to produce ethical, sustainable, kosher meat. I thought I would tackle the dissertation first, since it would be nice to have that behind me, but the meat business took on a life of its own. I had the opportunity to open a west coast branch of KOL Foods (an east coast provider of kosher, organic-raised, local meat); I was asked to procure local, pasture-raised, kosher meat for the Hazon Food Conference; and many people are interested in this kind of meat. The idea spoke to me and the timing was right, so I decided to dive in.
Who asked you to help with the Food Conference? How did you get involved?
The person chairing the food committee for the conference wanted some help obtaining sustainable kosher meat, and I had a keen interest in this very thing. It was a shidduch.
The shechita was my idea. Kosher poultry is difficult to do on a small scale because, without an expensive machine, the birds have to be plucked by hand, which is time-consuming. But since hundreds of people, including at least one shochet, will be in town for the conference, I figured why not invite a couple dozen volunteers to a farm the day before the conference and shecht, pluck, clean, and kasher the birds ourselves? During last year’s Food Conference, as a demonstration, Hazon shechted three goats [and served some of the meat at Friday night dinner]. This year’s shechita, though occurring in advance of the actual conference, will produce enough meat for a Shabbat dinner for 400-500 people.
How is the process of coordinating everything going so far?
Great. We’ve got a shochet, an educator, a farm, turkeys, and volunteers. Some details still need to be ironed out, but I’m very optimistic about the project. I was worried at first, because the season for pasture-raised chickens is over, but I found an amazing farm whose beautiful heritage turkeys solved my problem.
How many animals (pounds of meat) do you plan to shecht for the event?
Right now, we’re planning on about 150 pounds of meat, maybe a little less. This translates into perhaps 15-20 turkeys.
Some Jews – most notably groups like the Jewish Vegetarians of North America and Veggie Jews – believe that the Torah mandates that vegetarianism and that any meat consumption, ethical or not, is unethical for Jews. What are your views on that mindset?
According to the Torah, humanity was originally given a vegetarian diet, and eating meat became explicitly permitted only after the Flood. Many Jewish vegetarians, I believe, acknowledge this. Their argument is not that the Torah forbids eating meat, but rather that the initially specified diet suggests that vegetarianism is a Jewish ideal. They may be right. Eating meat certainly raises ethical issues, for Jews and non-Jews alike: why should we kill animals, or cause them any suffering, when we can sustain ourselves without eating meat? This is a valid question, and I respect the choice of those who respond to it by being vegetarian.
My own view is that the issue is more complicated. For one thing, other animals eat meat, and we don’t consider this wrong. For another, meat, especially pasture-raised meat, is quite healthy for humans, so it would seem a natural thing to eat. Also, we have a symbiotic relationship with domesticated animals that arguably serves them as well as it serves us: in return for their meat, we raise them, care for them, and assist their propagation. At the species level, some animals may well be better off because of this relationship. Perhaps most importantly, however, I have witnessed shechita, and it simply didn’t seem wrong. I expected to have ethical doubts, but I found that taking responsibility for the death of the animal made me feel much less conflicted about, and more reverent and appreciative of, the meat I was eating.
What is unethical, Jewishly and otherwise, is to disregard the welfare of the animals that we raise and kill for meat. Judaism requires humane treatment of animals, and, in my opinion, the abysmal treatment that many animals endure in modern factory farming is antithetical to Jewish law. On these points, I am in complete agreement with Jewish vegetarians. We might not see eye to eye on everything, but we are definitely allies in the effort to raise awareness about the ethical shortcomings of factory farming.
Do you think that last May’s raid on the Agriprocessors meat plant will have any long-lasting impact on the kosher community (meat consumption and otherwise)? If so, what impact do you think it might have?
The Agriproccessors raid revealed terrible practices performed in the name of Judaism. Conditions at the plant were shameful, but I am proud of those in the Jewish community who are acting to prevent the situation from continuing or recurring. I have no idea what the ultimate extent of the changes will be, but I hope they are meaningful and profound.
If you could pick three words to describe your vision for what kashrut could/should look like in the American Jewish Community, what would they be?
Kashrut is the set of dietary laws to which observant Jews adhere. But if we care only about kashrut, we risk ignoring other laws — such as the prohibition against tza’ar ba’alei chayim (causing unnecessary suffering to living things) — and blinding ourselves to ethical considerations. My vision is a Jewish community that, in addition to observing kashrut, acts with kavod towards the animals we eat, considers the sustainability of our actions, and takes responsibility for the impact of our food choices.
Kavod. (The Hebrew word for honor and respect.) We need to honor the animals whose lives we take for our own sustenance. We can do this by letting them live the way they were meant to live: foraging on pasture, roaming unconfined, eating their natural food, and interacting with other animals, all in clean and healthy conditions. If we treat animals cruelly, as if they were nothing but insentient protein factories, we dishonor them and diminish ourselves. If instead we treat them with kavod, we acknowledge them as divine creations and experience our own compassion and humanity.
Sustainability. As Michael Pollan writes, conventional meat production is based largely on fossil fuels. Cattle are shipped long distances to “confined animal feeding operations” where they are unnaturally fattened on grain grown with fertilizers made from natural gas and pesticides made from petroleum (and subsidized by tax dollars). Removing cattle — and their waste — from farms also depletes the fertility of crop soil and causes huge pollution problems on the feedlots. These are not sustainable practices. Pasture-based farming, on the other hand, is based on solar energy. The sun nourishes the grass, which feeds the animals, which fertilize the soil. As Pollan notes, animals on pasture can harvest their own feed and dispose of their own waste, all without fossil fuel. Pasture-based farming is as sustainable as it gets.
Responsibility. Food choices have consequences. If we ignore these consequences, we cause animals to suffer, contribute to climate change and to our dependence on fossil fuels, and wind up with meat that is significantly less healthy. If instead we take responsibility for our food choices, we can promote animal welfare and environmental stewardship and wind up with better meat. Conventional meat is cheaper in dollars, but we pay for it with ethical compromises. Taking responsibility means paying the higher cost for meat from animals raised humanely and sustainably. It also means eating less meat, which the higher price would reinforce, and which would create additional environmental and health benefits.
The Meat of the Argument: Do Jews Need to Be Vegetarians?
Shwarmonic Convergence (comic)
Schecting a Goat at the Hazon Food Conference
Can a Jewish Food Conference be Lox Free?
Photo credit: Edible Portland