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Let’s Be Clear: ‘We’re Not About Food’

When I walked into Roxbury Park’s Community Center this past Sunday night, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I’ve been involved with the New Jewish Food Movement for a number of years, and one of the many questions I keep asking is, “What exactly is the landscape of the Food Movement?” In my work as a community rabbi both within a congregation and outside of it, I know that community needs definition, even in the broadest possible sense. Without definitions, a community can fail, especially one that describes itself as a “Movement.” So when my food-based organization, Netiya, co-sponsored a food justice event, Harvesting Justice, along with JFSJ/PJA and IKAR, I walked in with a number of questions in my pocket: what is the message of this “movement,” who makes up its committed core, and what can we learn from each other? In short, my questions could be surmised into a single query: “Who are we, really?”

Harvesting Justice brought together a large swath of organizations and individuals who self-associate with the word “food.” In the courtyard of the community center, a number of invited groups put on a foodie fair with booths with everything from making vegan-raw chocolate pudding, to “shopping” (read: taking for free) from a selection of fallen fruits and vegetables from around Los Angeles, to advocates for restaurant worker justice. One would need a very wide-angle lens to capture the panorama of issues, programs, and initiatives associated with the Food Justice Movement, let alone the entire Food Movement.

That’s when it hit me. There are a huge number of individuals and organizations that have very differing interests. The vegan chef might not care that much about food banks, just as the labor organizer might not care about veganism. Even calling everyone in the room “foodies” doesn’t necessarily take into account the community activist who cares less about sourcing or organics than she does about supermarket access. That’s when I learned my most important lesson: If the New Jewish Food Movement is going to take off and scale up, it can’t be about…food. It’s about relationships. The most important part of the evening was not the grow-your-own booth or the panel discussion on supermarket conversations; nor was it the mural of all the organizations working on food issues in the city or in Talmud study. The most important part of the night was building relationships and synergies among the differing interests and passions to find an overlapping alignment to lead us into action.

I learned once that if you want to have a sustainable, lasting impact on any society, it is not enough to push on a single issue. A single issue can get resolved, but it is only through the lasting relationships from one campaign to the next that we can create true sea change in social policy. That means programs, campaigns, and initiatives are means, not ends. Their purpose is to reinforce the relationships between organizations and individuals, as is the outcome of the campaign itself. A campaign is a crucible for leadership development, recruitment of new members, and the cement that bonds a community together by showing them if they can act together, they can thrive together. If the New Jewish Food Movement wants social change, as I believe it does, then the most important thing we can be doing right now is developing resilient relationships that reinforce each other’s interests and lend support to each other’s programs, ideas, and campaigns.

Food has historically been the force for social cohesion. It intersects so much of our lives, from our dinner plates at home, to the grower in the field, to our medical system. The New Jewish Food Movement can uncover its power to unite Jews from differing political, ideological, religious, and socio-economic perspectives by realizing that food is the means to greater end — a just, verdant, sustainable community. That’s the true power of who we are.

As I left the park that night, I was delighted to see my three-year old daughter holding her new pot of Swiss chard in one hand and a brightly colored brochure for grocery store reform in the other. I turned to my wife and told her: that’s the future I want for our family, now let’s make it happen.

Rabbi Noah Zvi Farkas is a rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom Synagogue in Los Angeles, CA. He is also the founder of Netiya a Jewish network that advances urban agriculture in synagogues, schools, and non-profit organizations in Los Angeles. Netiya cultivates gardens to tithe nutritious food and organizes community to seed a more just and resilient food system. He can be reached at [email protected].

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