BERKELEY, Calif. - Tali Weinberg walks along the rows of leafy green vegetables poking out of neatly raised beds of soil at Urban Adamah, a newly launched Jewish garden project in this university town.
“We’re growing chard, kale, lettuce, summer squash, cucumbers, beans, basil, fennel, dill, tatsoi, broccoli, cabbage,” she said, surveying the garden. Later in the summer, they will add peppers, tomatoes and eggplants.
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Almost all of it will be donated to two local agencies that feed the poor: a low-income medical clinic and a neighboring church.
“We gave our first donation this morning,” Weinberg said on June 27. “It felt really good to me to partner with a health clinic, because food is about medicine. They see a lot of people with health problems due to poor nutrition, a lot of heart conditions and diabetes. Sure, food is about celebration, but for many people it literally saves lives.”
Urban Adamah is on the cutting edge of a fast-growing phenomenon. As
general interest in food justice and healthy eating intersects with the
longstanding Jewish commitment to tzedakah -- particularly the
commandment to care for the poor and needy -- growing numbers of
synagogues, Jewish schools, camps, community centers and freestanding
Jewish farm projects are planting gardens and donating the produce. And
they’re doing so in conscious fulfillment of Jewish values.
The Jewish community has a long history of helping the hungry. That used
to be centered mostly around holding canned-food drives, giving out
free meals, running agencies that help the needy and engaging in
political advocacy. But now Jewish groups are also maintaining food
gardens and giving away the bounty, reflecting many people’s desire for
more hands-on involvement.
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“Food justice is the cause of this generation,” said agronomist Oran
Hesterman, author of “Fair Food” and founder of the Fair Food Network, a
nonprofit working to provide underserved populations access to healthy,
sustainably grown food.
He noted that 8,000 farm-to-school programs now operate in the United
States, up from just four in 2003. People want fresh produce and healthy
food, he said, but in many low-income neighborhoods without
supermarkets or farmers markets it simply is not available. These are
called “food deserts.”
“The No. 1 barrier is not knowledge, but access,” he said.
That’s what these Jewish gardens are trying to change.
Urban Adamah, built on the site of a former printing press on land used
most recently as a parking lot, planted its first crops this spring and
officially opened in mid-June.
Most of the work is done by a dozen post-college residential fellows who
spend three months working the land and learning about farming and the
Jewish values related to food and agriculture. The program was developed
by Adam Berman, Urban Adamah's executive director, based on a similar
program he created at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in
Connecticut that produced a cadre of young Jewish farmers and farm
educators now in charge of their own projects around the country. They
include Kayam Farms in Reistertown, Md., and the Jewish Farm School at
Eden Village Camp, N.Y.
In Denver, Ekar Farm was launched 20 months ago on unused land belonging
to the Denver Academy of Torah, a Modern Orthodox day school. (Watch
JTA's video on Ekar Farm.) Last year, the farm grew 8,000 pounds of
produce and gave 6,500 pounds of it to the Jewish Family Service Food
Pantry. The Ekar staff has helped other local synagogues start their own
“It’s a wonderful community activity,” said Ekar’s volunteer coordinator
Aaron Ney. “Spending time in the field, turning the earth together,
harvesting together, is a great way to get to know each other and build
As momentum builds, more and more synagogues, schools, camps and JCCs are getting into the act.
Rachel Cohen, sustainability program coordinator for the Religious
Action Center of Reform Judaism, says all 13 Reform movement summer
camps and more than 20 congregations are doing some kind of food justice
work. Some of them are growing and donating food, or leaving the
corners of their fields for the poor to come and take what they need --
something the Torah instructs.
“It’s becoming increasingly integrated into how we think about food justice in general,” Cohen said.
Temple Shalom, a Reform congregation in Aberdeen, N.J., started Gan
Tikvah, the “garden of hope,” in January 2010. Partnering with
Conservative Temple Beth Ahm, volunteers broke ground that May,
harvested their first crop in the summer and eventually donated 400
pounds of vegetables to the Matawan United Methodist Church to be
consumed by the poor.
Organizer Lenore Robinson says it’s the first time the three
institutions have worked together. “We’ve created a real community that
we never had before,” she said.
In Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood, KAM Isaiah Israel Congregation
planted its first food garden in 2009 and now grows organic produce on
2,500 square feet of what used to be the synagogue lawn. Last year, they
delivered more than 1,200 pounds of food to two soup kitchens and a
shelter for women and children.
This spring, the synagogue’s social justice committee used a grant from
One Chicago, One Nation, a community organizing group, to plant a 1,000
square-foot garden at a nearby church in this largely impoverished
neighborhood, says committee chair Robert Nevel. A second garden at
another church will follow, and the synagogue is developing a model to
help other shuls set up their own urban gardens.
“To be able to say we harvested and donated more than 1,200 pounds of
food last year is a lot different than me going around the South Side
and talking about the lack of food access,” Nevel said. “And to help
them establish food gardens to grow their own food is a powerful thing.”
The phenomenon is still new, but it’s answering a need expressed by the
emergency food system itself, said Mia Hubbard, grants director for
Mazon, a national Jewish nonprofit dedicated to alleviating hunger.
Until recently, she said, agencies focused mainly on getting food into
people’s mouths. But over the past five years, as awareness of childhood
obesity and the connection between nutrition and health care costs has
grown, food banks and soup kitchens have been paying more attention to
the nutritional aspects of the food they give out.
“There’s been a significant interest in and commitment to increasing the availability of healthy food,” Hubbard said.
Some will no longer accept donations of soda pop or sugary cereals. But
getting enough fresh produce isn’t always easy, according to Hubbard.
Last November, the Jewish Community Centers of North America launched
JCC Grows, a campaign to get every center and JCC camp to grow its own
food garden, and to donate a portion of their produce to the hungry.
Barbara Lerman-Golomb, social responsibility consultant for the JCC
Assocation, says a recent survey showed 25 JCCs have their own on-site
gardens, and more than half give away at least some of what they grow.
But these gardens and other food programs didn’t all crop up this past
year, she says. “Many of them were already in place,” she told JTA. “Our
program is a way to synthesize what they’re doing, provide resources,
and be part of a larger greater good as a partner of the USDA’s People’s
Garden Initiative and First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move effort.”
The cumulative impact of these initiatives may still be small, said Hubbard, but they’re heading in the right direction.
“What the Jewish community is doing is part of a much larger effort,”
she said. “But to see Jewish institutions contribute in this way is very
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