Massachusetts Board of Rabbis - Statement on Food Justice - June 2011
The Massachusetts Board of Rabbis recognizes that the food choices we make every day have social justice implications. While Jewish concern for the hungry and homeless is well known, Jewish tradition has much more to say about the impact of our food choices. Jewish teachings regarding food speak to many areas of contemporary concern. Food Justice includes caring for the earth, which is the source of our food, caring for the workers who produce our food, caring for our own health and nutrition, and caring for the equitable sharing of the earth’s resources. Food justice is a cry against poverty, hunger, waste and oppression, and a call to action: “tzedek, tzedek tirdof/justice, justice shall you pursue” (Deut. 16:20).
The pursuit of Food Justice begins with a concern for all who are hungry. Striving to fulfill the prophet Isaiah’s challenge to “share your bread with the hungry,” (Is. 58:7) celebrations involving food are opportunities to respond to the moral scandal of hunger. A percentage of the celebration’s cost, for example, can be designated as a contribution to organizations such as MAZON. “When you are asked in the world to come, ‘What was your work?’ and you answer, ‘I fed the hungry,’ you will be told, ‘this is the gate of the Lord, enter into it, you who have fed the hungry’” (Midrash Tehillim 118.17).
The pursuit of Food Justice includes concern for the environment. When humans are first told that every plant that grows from the earth shall be for food, we are also instructed to be care-takers of the earth, “l’ovdah u’l’shomrah/to work it and to watch over it,” (Genesis 2:15) a reminder that eating is intrinsically connected to the environment. Eating locally is good for the environment and good for ourselves. Eating food in season can help reduce energy use in transportation and food storage, which affects climate change. The average trip from the farm to our plate is 1500 miles (Kingsolver, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, p. 5). Community Supported Agriculture programs (CSAs) and Farmers Markets offer an opportunity to strengthen our communities, while fostering healthy food choices. Giving greater emphasis to organic farming reduces the impact of chemicals, fertilizers, and insecticides on the environment. Reduction of meat consumption decreases impact on the environment: production of meat requires more grain for feed; it produces harmful waste that adds to the pollution of the earth, air and water; and it requires excessive amounts of energy.
The pursuit of Food Justice includes concern for the wellbeing of those who produce our food. As Jews, we should not eat that which has been produced under oppressive conditions. In 1974, concerning non-union grapes, the Massachusetts Board of Rabbis declared, “If it flows from oppression, it is not kosher.” In buying fair trade products, we help to ensure that workers are treated fairly, and that employers share profits with the workers. This is especially important in purchasing coffee and chocolate, two items for which the profit is typically not shared with the producers. The treatment of workers is also an issue in many domestic meat-processing plants. Of special concern for us is the treatment of workers in kosher slaughterhouses.
The pursuit of Food Justice includes concern for health, our own and that of others. Jews are called to observe the ritual practice of kashrut, which inculcates mindfulness in our approach to eating and trains us to respect boundaries against unbridled consumption. Understood as a commandment to look after one’s health, the Torah teaches, “Only take heed and watch over yourself very carefully” (Deut. 4:9). The Seer of Lublin comments, “Watch over your body through self-limitation and restraint” (Itturei Torah, vol. 6, p. 37). Recognizing limits in regard to what we consume is an ethical imperative toward improving individual health and social wellbeing. With an inter-play of factors -- overconsumption, unhealthy food choices, the marketing of junk food to vulnerable populations, and poverty, there has been a dramatic negative impact on the health of Americans. As a matter of food justice in America, it is especially important that poor neighborhoods have ready access to healthy, reasonably priced food. Obesity rates among adults have risen from 13% to 33% from the early 1960s until today. One in three American children is now considered to be either overweight or obese, and they are likely to be the first generation in this country who will not live as long as their parents. “Four of the top ten causes of death today are linked to diet: coronary heart disease, diabetes, stroke, and cancer. Poor diet puts a great burden on our health care system, a burden estimated at $90 billion a year” (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).
The pursuit of Food Justice extends beyond our national borders. Just as the lack of accessibility to healthy food in poor neighborhoods in America leads to chronic disease, so food policies, domestic and international, create scarcity of food in the developing world. According to the World Bank, food prices continue to rise to historic levels, pushing millions of people into poverty and threatening political stability. An enactment in the Talmud offers an instructive model of economic policy shaped in accord with human need, “The rabbis taught, one may not buy and sell for profit in the Land of Israel things that are the staples of life, chayei nefesh” (Bava Batra, 91a). Drawing on a paradigm of concern in the ancient Land of Israel, in the global village of today, food availability and affordability throughout the world should not be a matter of privilege, but a right for all people..
Recognizing that we are responsible for the food choices we make in our own lives, for helping to insure sustenance for all people, for feeding the hungry, healing the sick, and preserving the natural world, the Massachusetts Board of Rabbis supports and encourages the pursuit of Food Justice and encourages such actions as the following:
Foster greater awareness of how our food choices are an issue of environmental, economic, and health justice.
Learn about the Hekhsher Tzedek, or Justice Certification, and its seal, the Magen Tzedek, a supplementary ethical certification for kosher meat and poultry products that have met Jewish Halakhic/legal standards concerning the treatment of workers and animals.
Support and promote legislation that will help insure the distribution of healthy food, both domestically and internationally.
- Encourage members of our communities to make food choices that are based on values of food justice.
- Apply these values and pursue food justice when making food choices in our congregations and organizations.
- Urge our congregations to become MAZON partners.
- Purchase ethically produced food products, such as those that are fair trade and hechsher tzedek-certified, in our congregations and homes.
- Create a “mitzvah garden” at your synagogue and donate produce to a local food bank.
- Participate in a local CSA.
- Create opportunities to contribute to and volunteer at food pantries, such as Family Table (sponsored by JF&CS) or your local food bank.
Food Justice Resources
“Food Inc.” Movie and participant guide by Participant Media and Karl Weber
Barbara Kingsolver, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life
Michael Pollan, The Omnivore's Dilemma, Food Rules, In Defense of Food
Agnes Varda, film: The Gleaners and I