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Greens and God: Finding Judaism in a CSA

Image by Jenna Smith

White Russian kale, Swiss chard, bok choy, mustard greens, Chinese cabbage, cherriette radishes, and garlic chives fill my grocery bags. Delivered from the Northern Catskills to Lower Manhattan, this vegetable share is the beginning of my CSA experience in the city. I begin washing the bunches of greens, excited for the first flavors of the summer. Muddy water runs from the leaves into the sink.

Standing there in my studio in the middle of Manhattan, I can’t help but think about the farmer who planted these vegetables, the laborer who picked them, and their short journey from the farm to my counter. As an urbanite isolated from the food system that sustains me, and as a Jew with the Shmita year in the horizon, I cannot help but to draw connections between my participation in a CSA and my religion.

During the Shmita year, we are instructed to harvest produce that is ripe, seasonal, and local. Yet most of the fruits and vegetables that line our supermarket shelves travel across state and national lines to our refrigerators. They are picked early and mature on the supply chain. Efficient transportation systems make seasonality irrelevant. Conventional produce is usually not ripe, seasonal, or local. On the other hand, my CSA vegetables only travel a few hours from upstate New York before arriving in my kitchen, promising freshness and ripeness, as well as seasonality.

The connection between CSAs and Shmita is drawn out further when considering the Shmita marketplace described in the Torah. During the Shmita year, produce should not be sold by measure, weight or number, but by estimation. At my CSA, vegetables come in shares and are sorted in bunches. These arbitrary measures are established by the farmer based on how much produce the crop yielded. This system releases the pressure on farmers to produce prescribed quantities of food. These measures reflect the erratic nature of agriculture and inform consumers about food production. Bunches or shares are similar to the estimations of the Shmita year, creating a connection between sustainability and Torah.

Community is also at the center of Shmita. Unlike other years, during the sabbatical of the land the needy, the rich, the servants, and their employers should all eat from the same bounty. Although this is not necessarily true for every CSA, any share that is not picked up at my CSA is donated to a soup kitchen, bringing fresh organic produce to under-served communities in New York City. This is not the equal access described in the Torah, but it is a step in the right direction.

As September approaches marking the beginning of the Shmita year, and we begin to think about applying the principles of Shmita to our modern lives, you may want to consider joining a CSA or consider another way to make Shmita relevant to your life. Although the land will not be left to fallow and our debts won’t be released, the fresh, local, community-oriented values of a CSA resemble those prescribed by Shmita. In preparation for Shmita I joined a healthy sustainable eating community that gives me access to seasonal fresh vegetables.

Nora Cohen is a Summer Intern at Hazon. She is pursuing her Masters in Food Studies at NYU and hopes to work in food policy. In her free time, you can find her baking, hosting dinners, painting with friends, or enjoying the sunshine in Central Park.

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