Shoresh Food Conference 2014: State of the Onion
By Risa Alyson Cooper, as presented during the Plenary Session
Good morning everyone and welcome! Welcome foodies, farmers, chefs, rabbis, students,
nutritionists, bakers, and lovers of cholent! Welcome to the third annual Shoresh Food Conference, where we bring together community members from across the many spectrums that make up our diverse community sowe can explore together the intersections between Jewish tradition, food, and contemporary life…so we can collectively engage with the question “what does it mean to eat Jewishly today?”
I want to start today with what we at Shoresh call a State of the Onion…essentially a State of the Union with a vegetable twist – it’s a brief look at the food challenges we face, the successes we are celebrating, and the future of the Jewish Food Movement.
Food today is complicated. There are a lot of questions we need to ask if we want to be informed,
intentional eaters. Is our food organic? Is it locally grown? Does it contain genetically modified ingredients? Was the farmer who grew it paid a living wage? How were the animals raised? How were they slaughtered? How is it packaged? How is it distributed? Is it too expensive? Is it not expensive enough? Is it kosher? Does it have a heksher? Is it gluten free? Oy vey!
In our food system, even with a polar vortex outside, you can eat fresh strawberries in January. Today,
the average North American meal travels 2400 km to get from field to table and contains ingredients from at least five other countries. A head of broccoli can travel more of North America than the average North American.
In our food system, it is illegal to purchase raw milk. Our provincial government will guarantee my
right to buy cigarettes, but not my right to access unpasteurized dairy products (because those might kill me).
In our food system, the pesticides we spray to “protect” some of our crops are in turn decimating our
pollinator populations. Insect pollinators are necessary for the reproduction of 90% of flowering plants and one third of human food crops. Here is just a sampling of crops that are dependent upon or benefited by insect pollination.
In our food system, genetically modified ingredients do not need to be labeled as such. Despite the
fact that 60 other countries have mandated the labeling of genetically engineered foods, Canada has yet to pass legislation guaranteeing our right to know what we are eating.
In our food system we often depend on certifying agencies to tell us if something is organic, fair trade
or kosher. Now that our food is often grown, raised, packaged and prepared out of sight, certifications have become the new standard for consumers wishing to make informed food choices. But our certifying systems were designed for and cater to corporate food businesses, leaving many small-scale artisanal food producers off the table, so to speak.
In our food system, there are people in our own community who are hungry, not because we have a
problem with food production, but because we have a real problem with food distribution. Each year, the average single-family household in Toronto discards about 275 kilos of food (over 600 pounds). And, for the 5th year in a row, GTA food banks have seen over one million visits, with an increase of nearly 40 per cent in Toronto’s former inner suburbs since 2008. Joel Salatin, who runs Polyface Farm, a beyond organic grass-fed farm in Virginia (and is prominently featured in Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilema) published a book in 2011 called “Folks, this ain’t normal: A Farmer’s Advice for Happier Hens, Healthier People, and a Better World.” In it he critically examines
our industrial food system and continually arrives at the inarguable conclusion that our systems “aint normal” and that with every bite we take we are either healing or hurting our soil, our animals, our bodies, our neighbours, and ultimately our world.
So, how do we navigate the challenges created by an abnormal food system, one that obscures our
relationships and connections with our food, that hides the environmental, social, and health costs of modern food production? Where do we turn to find a modern food ethic? In Judaism, there are rules that govern our relationship with food – how we grow it, how we prepare it, how we eat it, and how we share it with others. Jewish ethical and legal systems actually promote sustainable agriculture techniques, uphold social justice, and inspire the paradigm shift required for creating an equitable and sustainable food system. The laws of kashrut tell us what to eat; the Jewish agricultural laws outlined in the Torah, such as leket, peah, ma’aser, instruct us on how to share our harvest with those in need; the collection of laws known as tzaar ba’alei chayim ensure that we prevent the unnecessary suffering of animals; and brachot/blessings help us to eat with intention and gratitude, to give just a few examples. Food today may be complicated, but our community has been exploring the nature of our relationship with food for thousands of years and with the support of our texts and teachings, and by drawing on our rich agricultural and culinary history, we can navigate what and how to eat in a way that is best for our selves, our community and the globe.
While the relationship between Judaism and food is not new, the growth of a movement of individuals who are exploring this relationship in a contemporary context and advocating for Jewish food justice is a relatively recent phenomenon. Shoresh, in its current incarnation, was only established in 2009, and now we reach close to 4500 individuals annually through our educational programs at the Kavanah Garden, Bela Farm, in schools and shuls across the city, and at the Shoresh Food Conference. In the last handful of years, we have seen the birth and growth of a Jewish Food Movement, with regional one-day Jewish food conferences being just one piece of the puzzle. Today’s gathering is not happening in a vacuum – while we are exploring what it
means to eat Jewishly in Toronto, our cousins are having similar conversations in New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Denver, and San Francisco.
Not only are the Jewish communities of North America thinking about Jewish food ethics, they are
putting Jewish ethical teachings around food into practice. In the last decade, we have seen the exponential growth of Jewish Community Supported Agriculture Programs (or CSAs) in North America. More and more of our community members are committing their purchasing power to local, sustainable food systems. In Toronto alone, there are over 350 members of Jewish CSAs between the Shoresh’s Kavanah Garden, Holy Blossom Temple, and the First Narayever Congregation, all three offering year-round fresh, local, organically grown veggies and eggs. Many of the vegetables featured in today’s lunch have been generously donated by our friends at Highmark Farms, our partner for Shoresh’s CSAs. For more information about our CSAs (including information about additional pickup sites this spring), make sure to check out the Shoresh info table at some point today.
And the search for ethical food does not stop at beets and potatoes….in the age of contemporary
factory farms, more and more people are demanding kosher meat that holds to Jewish ethical standards, not just the laws of kosher slaughter. In the shadow of the Agriprocessors Kosher Slaughterhouse scandal of 2008, where hundreds of cases of animal cruelty as well as the gross mistreatment of illegal immigrant workers were documented, we have seen the creation of a sustainable kosher meat industry. Tiferet, based in Montreal, offers organic chickens and now organic beef as well. We have discussed accessing kosher sustainable meat at previous food conferences, and we are thrilled to have our friends from Grow and Behold Meats with us today, all the way from New York, to discuss creating a Toronto buyers club for their products. For more information about Judaism and ethical meat eating, please check out today’s session From Field to Fork:
Raising Animals for Consumption and participate in the Round Table discussion with Grow and Behold Meats this afternoon.
The last few years have also seen the incredible growth of Jewish farming projects across the United
States, and with Bela Farm, now in Canada too. The experiential land-based programs offered at these sites are immersive, transformative and are helping a generation of young Jews get back to their Jewish roots in real and meaningful ways.
• Adamah, a three month Jewish farming fellowship in rural Connecticut at the Isabella Freedman
Jewish Retreat Centre, where fellows are changing the world one pickle at a time
• Urban Adamah, an educational farm and community center in Berkeley, California that offers a
residential fellowship program for young adults that combines organic farming, progressive
Jewish living, and social justice internships.
• Pearlstone Center in Reisterston, Maryland, which each year hosts a Beit Midrash, house of
study, giving participants an opportunity to delve deeply into Jewish environmental and
• Yiddish Farm in Goshen, New York…where you farm…in Yiddish….
• We are honoured to have our friends from Eden Village Camp with us today from New York,
and we encourage you to talk with camp founder and director Yoni Stadlin to learn more about
Eden Village, the first Jewish overnight farm camp that is literally changing the lives of its
campers, staff, and greater community through their farm to table camp program.
Clearly the Jewish Food Movement is doing radically amazing things ….and the broader Jewish
community is taking notice. No longer just a marginal player in the Jewish communal world, Jewish Food initiatives are now receiving funding from major North American granting agencies and donors. Shoresh alone has received funding and recognition from Slingshot (a resource guide profiling the 50 most inspiring North American Jewish projects, which has listed us twice), Covenant Foundation, Joshua Venture Group, Natan Fund, SixPoints Jewish Venture Philanthropy Fund, and UJA Federation of Greater Toronto. Add the incredible awards and achievements given to our sister organizations in the U.S., and it is clear that not only are we doing incredible things for the Jewish communities of North America, but also that what we are doing is no longer on the fringe…the Jewish food movement has gone mainstream and the greater Jewish community is
looking to us as leaders in engagement and innovation in Jewish life.
Within the Jewish Food world, there are three different access points for engaging with Jewish food
ethics, three different spheres of action, which are reflected in the sessions offered at today’s conference:
First, there are personal connections. Each of us here is on our own personal food journey. When I was 18 a friend of mine and I drove across Canada for a summer. We ended up a little low on funds in Nelson, British Columbia and found ourselves one night at a free church dinner for the homeless and the many transient community members such as ourselves who flowed through the local youth hostel. The church dinner was entirely vegan and the reverend explained to me that he believed that night’s dinner was a fulfillment of Jesus’ ethic of compassion…for people, for animals. And that was one of my most profound ahha moments…that religion, spirituality, tradition might inform the food choices we make. I had grown up in our community going to day school, Jewish camp, Jewish high school….and it was in a church on the other side of our country that I first realized that eating “Jewishly” could be more than eating mandelbroit, or having a Passover seder. And so, in many ways began my personal food journey…which led me to farms in western Canada, the north east United States, and Costa Rica…which led me to vegetarianism, then veganism, then vegetarianism, then veganism…then to participate in a goat shechting (or kosher slaughter) (which incidentally made me decide that under the right circumstances and with the right Kavanah/intention, that I could seemyself eating meat again)….and now I am at a crazy stage in my food journey whereby I am now a food
source….while pregnant and now through breastfeeding, everything that I eat sustains not just me, but is exclusively what is sustaining my growing daughter. And that is crazy….and miraculous….and a constant reminder that I am what I eat…physically….energetically….spiritually.
So, wherever you are on your own personal food journeys, there are sessions today to help you grow and expand your skills and awareness: DIY workshops such as How to Make a Sustainable Shabbat Dinner, Kosher Cheese-Making, Growing in Small Spaces, and Fermentation and Microbiology. And workshops on bringing more intention and awareness to your food practices: Eating as Tikun, and The Exile of the Jewish Body.
Second, there are regional connections. Each region faces unique food challenges and has its own set
of resources to draw on. Pick up a copy of Edible Toronto and the Golden Horseshoe to learn about our local foodshed….taste the delicious locally made products available today from our friends at Ozery Pita Break, Sunflower Kitchen, Sweets from the Earth, Limonana and our lunch lovingly made by Mo and Lo Organics….talk to other conference participants between sessions, at lunch, and learn about the amazing things people are doing and working on in our own community. Go to today’s session on Jewish Farmers of Ontario, which will highlight our community’s rich agricultural history in this part of the world and explore the core values that are guiding a resurgence of rural Jewish community in Ontario through the genesis of Bela Farm.
And third, there are global connections. Many of the challenges that we face as a result of our
industrial food system have global implications. Global climate change is real and it is frighteningly clear that the choices we make (notably food choices) have environmental consequences. Typhoon Haiyan tore through the Philippines last year, Australia and California are experiencing record breaking rain deficiencies, a polar vortex paralyzed our city and destroyed 20% of Toronto’s tree canopy. What are the teachings we can draw on within our tradition to navigate global issues such as climate change? What actions can we take as a community to prioritize and ensure environmental sustainability? Today there are a number of sessions that offer Jewish perspectives on some of the biggest global issues we face. Check out Not So Many Fish in the Sea, a look at eating fish in an age of overfishing and climate change or Canola, Corn, Soy…OY!, a multifaith look at
genetically modified foods.
So what’s next? How do we continue to grow in our relationship to our food, in our Jewish identities,
as a Jewish community? This Rosh Hashanah, we enter into the next Shmitah or Sabbatical year. In Sefer Shemot, the Book of Exodus, immediately following revelation at Sinai, G!d presents the Israelites with a set of moral codes to live by. Included in the collection of ethical teachings meant to guide our ancestors as they prepared to settle in the land of Israel, is the commandment to observe Shmita, a biblically mandated “Sabbatical year” of rest and release.“For six years you are to sow your land and to gather in its produce, but in the seventh, you are to let it go [tishm’tenah] and to let it be [u’nitashta], that the needy of your people may eat, and what remains, the wildlife of the field shall eat. Do thus with your vineyard, and your olivegrove” Shemot 23:10-11.
From this and other passages, our rabbis learned that during the Shmitah year, the soil was
neither seeded nor tilled, all private land holdings became open to the commons, every Israelite had
equal access to food through stores and wild harvests, and that foods were not sold as a commodity in
the marketplace. Not only that, but all debts were forgiven and all indentured servants were released.
Shmitah teaches us that there is a definite link between sustainable agriculture and sustainable
economy and that our systems are in need of regular readjustment in order to ensure a more
equitable, just, and healthy society. While observance of Shmitah is only mandated in biblical Israel,
the great equalizing that is at its core is more relevant today than ever. The entire occupy movement
is in response to the growing inequality that our societal structures perpetuate. Shmitah is the next big
thing in the Jewish Food Movement because it’s not just an agricultural ethic…it’s a full ethical
system…reminding us that while food is a big piece of creating a just society, it’s not the only piece and we need to think critically about the systems that order our world if we want to uphold the Jewish
ethic of tzedek/justice. We need to ensure that everyone in our community has fair and equal access
Hazon, the largest Jewish environmental organization in North America, has initiated the
Shmita Project, which aims to create a network of individuals and organizations who are exploring the practices and values of Shmita, while also encouraging the broader study of Shmitah through the
sharing of teachings and resources. As a member of this network, Shoresh staff and partners are
committing to studying Shmitah deeply over the coming months and to creating a calendar of
programs for community members to study up to and during the next Shmitah year. And we’re
thinking big picture to – what would it look like to design the growing spaces at Bela Farm with the
next Shmitah cycle in mind? What would a Jewish farm in southern Ontario look like if we wanted to
live exclusively off what we produce at Bela Farm for the Shmitah year in 2021? What changes would we need to see in our greater community to make this possible? You can begin your own engagement with Shmitah texts and teachings, by participating in today’s session Shnat Shmitta: A Shabbat for the Land.
Just before the next Shmitah year begins this fall, I will be ending my own period of personal
Shmitah…of release. While on maternity leave, I have been released from my normal modes of
engaging with Jewish food issues as the Executive Director of Shoresh….I don’t have to send e-mails, or think about the logistics of feeding 100 Jewish foodies….it is a real gift to be here today as a participant, not an organizer. As someone who knows though how much work goes into an event like today’s food conference, I want to close by thanking, deeply, everyone who made today possible. Inparticular, the Shoresh staff….Tamar, Sabs, and Bluth…each of you is a gem in your own right….kol hakovod.
According to Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of our Ancestors, “It is not upon us to finish the work, but
neither are we free to desist from it.” Our food system “aint normal” and we have a responsibility to
do what we can to bring about real and meaningful change for ourselves, our communities, and our
world. Thank G!d we have tools…we have a tradition that is rich in food wisdom…deep teachings that can guide us in figuring out what it means to eat “Jewishly” in our contemporary food system. And we have community – in many way today’s gathering is a giant community potluck, with every person in this room bringing her or his skills, knowledge and experience to the table to share with us all. So thank you to our organizers and thank you to all of you for coming to learn, teach, and feed your curiosity. I want to bless you all with a day of deep delicious connections and nourishing moments.