After five years at the Food Bank for NYC, during which time I monitored over 400 food pantries and 200 soup kitchens, I thought I knew everything there was to know about local responses to hunger. Happily, It turns out I was wrong.
So what's new in the world of emergency food? Over the next three weeks I will profile three projects in this column. Together, they were showcased in a panel entitled Reversing Hunger: Local Responsesat last month's Hazon Food Conference. They represent some of the exciting local anti-hunger initiatives happening right now.
And just in time too, because this Saturday is Tu B’Shvat! One of the most enigmatic holidays in the Jewish calendar, Tu B’Shvat is, according to the Talmud, New Year’s Day for the Trees. Historically, it demarcated the calendar – if a tree began to flower prior to Tu B’Shvat (the 15th of the Hebrew month of Shvat), it was included in a tithe for the previous year. If a tree began to flower after Shvat it was counted in the following year. In this way, our ancestors determined, in accordance with the laws of shmitta (2), when the land would rest from work, its bounty ownerless and available for anyone in need.
Yup, every seven years land would become liberated from ownership and decommodified – produce could be harvested for nourishment and enjoyment, but could not be sold for profit.
These days, anti-hunger projects that empower those who are hungry are, unfortunately, the exception. While soup kitchens and food pantries do vital work in treating the symptoms of hunger, they’re often structured in a hierarchical benefactor-recipient framework.
Thankfully, this new crop of projects exemplify some of the best practices for fighting hunger – preserving dignity, growing skills, pooling resources and creating community across class lines. Let’s start with Eden Gardens, based out of Detroit.
In downtown Detroit, Chava Knox and Blair Nosan are transforming an abandoned lot into a productive vegetable and flower garden. Yet Eden Gardens, as the project is called, is cultivating something far deeper. Chava (R) and Blair (L) are bringing two communities together, and empowering both in the process.
The project, a collaboration between the Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue and a neighborhood block club also called Edan Gardens, was born just last year, during a Women's Circle meeting at the synagogue. From there it has grown to hosting volunteer work days, which unite Jewish and African American communities. Once neighbors in downtown Detroit, the city is now divided, the vast majority of Jewish families having decamped to nearby suburbs.
Today, the Synagogue and Block Club members are planning dinners, in which community members share and draft visions for the garden and the intentional community. There are trainings, in which community members give and receive support in entrepreneurship, community organizing and digital media. And there is – or will be – food. In this winter season, mulch and compost cover the garden floor, nourishing and protecting it from frost. But come Spring, thousands of carefully planted seeds will sprout and the vegetable bounty will feed those who need. With over 30% of Detroits resident’s living in poverty,(2) the need is great. Detroit is also well-known in food security circles for being home to some of the worse food deserts in the country, in addition to startlingly high rates of obesity.(3) Yet Eden Gardens inspires hope by pursuing systemic change. In contrast to a traditional food program, this method is slow, deliberate and small. Yet it offers deep, sustainable rewards.
May we all enjoy the sweet fruits of community and connection this Tu B’Shvat!
(1) Fascinating info on shmitta here: http://www.hazon.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/12/Shmita-Booklet.pdf