Friday night I had the honor of participating in an interfaith panel on food security hosted by The Ohio State University Muslim Student Association. My fellow panelists were Sister Dorothy Hassan (Muslim community activist with My Project USA), Bryan Snyder (Director of OSU’s Initiative for Food and Agricultural Transformation who happened to train as a Christian pastor), and Michelle Kaiser (Professor of Social Work at OSU).
I felt a bit uneasy and ill-prepared to represent the Jewish perspective*, but found in my preparatory reflections, and even more so in sharing them during the event, that I had unique ideas worth sharing. As an urban farmer who thinks of her work, not always but at least sometimes, through a Jewish lens, I wrestled with the questions the panel posed as I pulled together my talking points. These included:
- How is food security assessed? What makes an entity “food secure?”
- What is the most common misconception surrounding this issue?
- How can a community mitigate the stigma surrounding food insecurity?
- How does religion aid you in approaching the prospect of food insecurity? (ex. Religiously approved food).
- What entity should spearhead the issue of food insecurity?
Honestly these aren’t the kinds of questions I think of regularly in relation to Over the Fence. Mostly when such questions come up I feel guilty that I’m not doing more to help increase healthy, fresh food access to people in Columbus who live on public assistance in food desserts. But thinking about them in relation to Judaism gave me new this to think about and goals to work towards.
All on the panel agreed that food security is not just about having access to calories, but a regularly balanced diet of quality foods. Currently, an overwhelming majority of the USDA budget pays for SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, aka food stamps). Seems the USDA ought to be doing more to support entities like OSU and other land grant university’s extension offices, working in partnership with community organizations and farmers to produce more food on the local level. We all agreed that the industrial food system is broken. At Over the Fence we are experimenting with one model for growing food differently, in community, ensuring food security for those who participate in our CSA program in the form of access to high quality food from a known source.
I shared my sense of working in relationship with the natural world as it is informed by Jewish understandings and traditions which celebrate, for example, eating seasonally, attending to the phases of the moon, and recognizing the powerful importance of water. Jewish blessings over food often make mention of the source of particular ingredients in the food being blessed such as wine being the fruit of the vine. While I don’t say them regularly, I appreciate the potential of those blessings to remind us that food doesn’t come from the grocery store; it comes from the earth, with help from the farmers who send it to our plates. At least real food does.
The other thing I thought of as I prepared was the saying, “If you give a person a fish they’ll eat today, teach that person to fish and they will eat for a lifetime.” I did some digging and found that the original sentiment of the phrase, though not this familiar wording, dates back to a medieval rabbi, Maimonides (check out Quote Investigator for a complete discussion). As luck would have it, Maimonides, who was born in Spain, did a lot of his work as a physician and philosopher in Morocco and Egypt, working with Muslims as well as Jews. Seemed like the perfect person to talk about at this event.
Maimonides wrote about 8 levels of charity, the highest being helping someone in need help himself. Over time, his ideas were converted into the proverb we’re familiar with today. Seems pretty clear that more people would be more food secure if they controlled the knowledge and tools to produce their own food. I hope that as time goes on Over the Fence can extend our capacity to make that happen. I feel proud of the tours we give and this blog for sharing our work, but I would love to engage in more direct action towards fulfilling the educational aspect of our mission.
*If you’re interested in reading more on this see: “I’m Not Really A Chaplain, I Just Play One to Pay the Bills.”