On a recent Friday afternoon, 32 seventh-graders from San Francisco’s Brandeis Hillel Day School piled into a yellow school bus for a rather unusual field trip. Instead of heading to the zoo or a science museum, they went to the supermarket. With Jewish values on food and sustainability as their guide, students cased the aisles of local Trader Joe’s and Safeway stores to discover what products were available that met their social and environmental standards.
The field trip, conducted with the California office of Hazon, complemented the food curriculum that Samantha Zadikoff’s seventh grade class has been exploring this year. Food, rituals around food, distinctions about what is ‘kosher”, and the implications of who grows our food, where it comes from, what it’s fed, and what’s sprayed on it have been their through-lines to connect daily life with Jewish values.
The seventh grade curriculum revolves around tzedek, or justice. “We’re hoping to teach our children how to be philanthropic, and also to have empathy for causes that positively impact our world”, said Mrs. Zadikoff. “Our goal is to expose them to different causes while making connections to Jewish texts.”
Zadikoff continued, “We’ve learned why choosing organic, locally-sourced, fair-trade, and GMO-free food is better, but we hadn’t made the connection to what it really costs. It was important for us to explore the nutritional value of a dollar at the supermarket.”
Working in small teams, the students examined labels, packaging, and price tags to collect information about meat, dairy, dry goods, fruits and vegetables. With hundreds of products available and a host of Jewish values at play, students searched the shelves to determine which products price-conscious consumers ought to consider.
The field trip to Trader Joe’s and Safeway was designed to give the students a direct application for their learning while also gathering data to create a Sustainable Food Buying Guide, a supplement to Hazon’s popular Food Guide. The Hazon Food Guide outlines sustainable practices institutions and individuals can adopt when buying and serving food, while also providing context for the potential impact of those changes.
The Sustainable Food Buying Guide will help orient the Jewish community’s purchasing power to be values driven, but also cost-conscious.
“Shoppers are faced with a thousand decisions when they walk through the door of their supermarket,” said Deborah Newbrun, Hazon’s Bay Area Director. “We know that Bay Area families are shopping at Trader Joe’s and Safeway and that cost is the most important factor. We want to find and share real ways to stretch your dollar without compromising your values.”
Remarked seventh-grader Adam Teich, “I learned it’s really expensive to eat sustainably. [I’m now] aware of how much more it costs to choose organic and fair trade, but I still think it’s worth it.”
It’s true that the organic option tips the scale when compared to its conventional agriculture cousin. For vegetables at Trader Joe’s and Safeway, the cost difference was found to be anywhere from 50% to 100% more expensive for organic versus non-organic.
More than just looking for USDA Organic seals, students researched the product’s source to determine how far it traveled, scoured for clues on feeding and handling practices, and interpreted ingredient labels for nutritional value.
Information about the life of the animal or the agricultural practices of an apple are harder to find than one would think. After the field trip, student Emma Tick-Raker remarked: “I learned that labels don’t tell you very much. We wanted to know how and where the animal was fed and raised and there was no way to find out in the stores.”
“It really makes you think about what you’re putting in your shopping cart,” said seventh-grader Josh Greenwood. “I learned to look more closely at the package than first glance,” added fellow student Laura Berkovsky. “Even if the label says ‘natural,’ it doesn’t mean it’s better. You have to look for proof.”
Without signs and labels to guide choices at the grocery store, shoppers are left to dig through marketing terms like “fresh” and “all natural” to determine what really meets their values, versus what’s cleverly branded to play the part. The Hazon Sustainable Food Buying Guide will help inform shoppers as they wrestle with the decision to pay more for pastured eggs or grass-fed beef, or reach for the cheaper, less sustainable alternative.
Look for the published findings of the BHDS Seventh Grade Field Trip in the Hazon Sustainable Food Buying Guide, which will be available on the Hazon website this Spring.
Alli is the Food Justice Fellow for Hazon and is based in San Francisco. Originally from Richmond, Virginia, Alli came to the Bay Area after completing two years in AmeriCorps-National Direct in Chicago where she ran a community resource center serving low-income families. She enjoys eating and talking about eating.