For Hazon, a Jewish nonprofit environmental organization based in New York City, food has been a central focus from its beginning nearly two decades ago. The group, which is credited with launching the first Jewish-inspired Community Supported Agriculture program in North America, seeks to build healthier and more sustainable communities in the Jewish world and beyond.
We recently caught up with Nigel Savage, co-founder of Hazon, and Jeremy Kranowitz, Hazon's Managing Director for Sustainability, to discuss what Hazon is doing to help to inspire and build a more sustainable food system, why it's so important for people to take interest in where their food comes from and how the collective decisions we make about our food can add up to have a meaningful impact.
Please tell us about Hazon and its desire in helping people think more critically (and make smarter choices) about the food they eat.
Nigel: For two thousand years the Jewish people have had a tradition of "keeping kosher." The word "kosher" literally means "fit," as in "is this food fit for me to eat....?"
And we think that is a key question for everyone in the 21st century. From a Jewish context it involves connecting the dots - thinking not just about food in Jewish tradition but also the big questions: where does our food come from? How were the workers treated? How were the animals treated? How was the land treated? Do we grow any of our food? What about teenage obesity, military veterans hunger, food sovereignty and so on.
And so all of this underpins our work. The word "Hazon" means "vision" in Hebrew. Our vision is to create healthier and more sustainable communities in the Jewish world and beyond. We're using this lens of Jewish tradition to consider ways that we can improve the communities in which we live, the buildings where we spend our time and our individual bodies. No one is perfect, and our goal is not to insist on a particular lifestyle or set of beliefs; rather, it is to meet individuals and communities where they are and work collaboratively to make the world better tomorrow than it is today.
Food is essential for life, and has been a core aspect of Hazon's work from its founding 18 years ago. We launched the first CSA in the American Jewish community in 2003. In 2005, Anna Hanau and I co-wrote "Food for Thought," a sourcebook on Jews, Food and Contemporary Life, encouraging readers to think critically about the food they eat, the ways their food choices affect their personal health, and the overall health of the planet. In 2006 we hosted the first Jewish Food Conference. And so on. The Jewish Food Movement has become central both to strengthening Jewish life and creating more equitable food systems for everyone.
How is Hazon helping to build a more sustainable food system?
Jeremy: Hazon encourages more sustainable food consumption in lots of different ways. We have launched Jewish-inspired Community Supported Agriculture programs around the country. From the first one we launched in 2003, there are now more than 70 across the country. Last year our CSAs supported over 60 farms, hosted more than 170 educational events and we estimate gave around 40,000 pounds of produce to people in need.
Detroit is home to one of several large food festivals. In 2017, our Michigan Jewish Food Festival was attended by approximately 6,500 people, one of the largest food events in the State. Thousands of people experience a food marketplace featuring emerging entrepreneurs from Detroit-area growers; chef demos and tastings from around the world; and speakers on subjects ranging from food policy to water quality to Jewish ethics for food.
Our Seal of Sustainability reaches dozens of institutions around the country, which in turn reach tens of thousands of people, with programming to encourage procurement of more organic produce, and higher welfare animal protein and reducing meat consumption overall.
Our Adamah program brings cohorts of young adults together to learn to farm at our Isabella Freedman Retreat Center in Falls Village, Connecticut. We grow people through experiences with ecology, food production, social justice, spiritual practice, a vibrant evolving Judaism and intentional community.
Why is it so critical that we understand where our food comes from and how the food system works?
Jeremy: Food is a central and critical facet of all of our sustainability efforts. We have grown accustomed to seeing any food we want available any time we want, without any thought about the impact our food choices have on the world around us. Agriculture requires 80 percent of our fresh water and 10 percent of our energy to grow, harvest, store, transport and cook. Despite the fact that one in six Americans are food insecure, roughly one-third of the food that makes it to grocery stores and restaurants is wasted, thrown into landfills where the food rots, creating methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. This is a system that cries out for a more sustainable approach.
What does Jewish tradition say about the food we eat and the food choices we make?
Nigel: The challenges of Jewish life and of contemporary life intersect through the prism of food. Keeping kosher has been for three thousand years a central motif of Jewish life. It has linked ethics, culture, religion and family. Today, thinking about what is kosher - what is fit to eat - can be as much about rigid adherence to rules separating milk and meat as it is about the quality of the food - were the people who tended the soil and planted the crops honored for their work? Was the chicken able to range freely for its food and not injected with hormones to grow faster? These all should enter our calculations when we decide what is fit for our family to eat for dinner.
The point of "the earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof " (Psalm 24 ) is to remind us that we enjoy the natural fruits of creation. We ourselves did not create and could never create them. A bracha (a blessing) is different than saying "thanks for dinner, Mom and Dad" (though we should say that, too). When the rabbis of the Talmud suggested not merely that we say a bracha before eating, but that failing to do so represented a case of theft, this is a central idea they teach us: we might buy an apple or we might grow it, but we can never create it, and its creation is an everyday miracle.
From Hazon's perspective, what is the most effective way to inspire the younger generation's interest in food and agriculture and get them more engaged in building a sustainable food system?
Jeremy: One of the great ways to inspire youth is through experiential programming that takes children away from their video and phone screens, and literally restores them to their other senses. When young people take part in growing food - whether in a container in an apartment, a backyard garden or volunteering at an urban garden - they experience firsthand the joy of creation while gaining a critical skill, which in turn gives them a better understanding of how our food reaches our table.
Hazon's Camp Teva program integrates Jewish Outdoor, Food, Farming & Environmental Education ("JOFEE") into a series of fun and creative experiences.
Another important way to engage children is by volunteering with them to bring food to a local shelter and/or to help serve food to the hungry in the community. With one in six Americans food insecure, every city has a food pantry, soup kitchen or house of worship that helps provide food for those in need. Caring for those less fortunate is part of every major religion, and my own children are much less likely to waste food at home when they know there are those without enough to eat nearby.
What is an urgent food or agriculture related issue that you'd like to see resolved?
Nigel: Wasted food is an enormous food issue that we have the power to address through both personal and community action. Every celebration - whether at a Jewish institution or any other place - seems to build surplus and waste as a matter of course. I gave a presentation to the United Jewish Appeal of New York several years ago and asked the attendees to imagine a wedding or bar/bat mitzvah where all the food was completely consumed, with nothing left over. It was partly amusing to see the tension rapidly increase in everyone's body language. It can be uncomfortable to appear less than generous at a celebration. Yet, it is relatively easy to work with a caterer to build in smaller margins; to ask the caterer to bring food-safe containers to package leftovers that can be brought to local shelters. At Bonai Shalom synagogue in Boulder, Colorado, leftover salads from celebrations are brought out to feed the synagogue's chickens. The eggs from the chickens are then brought back to the synagogue and used to bake challah for Shabbat.
What is one small step every person can take in their daily lives that would have a big impact?
Jeremy: Every meal we consume presents an opportunity to make small decisions that in aggregate will add up to a big impact over the course of a year, and multiplied by everyone in the household, the neighborhood and the city around us, can make an enormous difference. Are we purchasing food on impulse that we don't know how to cook, or will likely throw away partially eaten? Are we buying fruit out of season, and then tossing much of it when unsurprisingly it is not very tasty? Are we ordering giant meals at restaurants and sending back plates with uneaten portions to be thrown away? Are we tossing food scraps into the garbage when we could be collecting them for compost? Are we buying, and preparing animal protein without any regard to how that animal was treated during its life? Each of these questions requires a series of small decisions, but in each case, with a little thought and a few extra minutes of effort, we have the ability to do the more sustainable thing. And each of us, collectively, can make a difference.
Can you say a little about the upcoming Hazon Food Conference and the unique experiences it affords?
Nigel: The Hazon Food Conference, and the Food Festivals we're launching around the country, are a chance to bring all these threads together. So the Hazon Food Conference, held in August at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Falls Village, Connecticut, provides a farm-to-table festival in the beautiful Berkshire mountains. We're bringing together cooking classes, sustainable agriculture, food security, celebration and social justice. Opportunities to hike in the mountains and swim in the lake are followed in the evening with late-night stargazing and bonfires. We want to change the world - and (on this occasion at least) we want to have fun while we do it.
What originally motivated you to get involved in Hazon and/or this area or work?
Jeremy: I joined Hazon recently, at the end of 2017, after a career of over 20 years working at and leading environmental and sustainability organizations. I was not raised in a very spiritual or religious household, and did not anticipate that my career would move toward faith-based work. Nigel once asked me to describe either the Jewish thread in my sustainability journey or the sustainability thread in my Jewish journey, and it was not until the question was asked that I gave any thought to the overlap between what our faith teaches us, and the difference I was trying to make to create a more sustainable environment. Of course, the two have been intertwined my entire life. The opportunity to meet people where they are at houses of worship, and use the language of faith to motivate people to walk the talk, was an offer too irresistible to refuse.