Eating with an eco-conscience

A small group gathered in the sanctuary of Temple Isaiah on April 11 to do what Jews do best: talk about food and then eat some. 

The occasion was a panel convened by Netiya, a Jewish network dedicated to advancing urban agriculture in religious institutions, nonprofits and schools across Los Angeles. The crowd had come to share and discuss best practices for creating change in the food systems at their churches, mosques, synagogues and schools as part of “Just Food: The 411 on Food Procurement for Your Synagogue.”

Devorah Brous, founding executive director of Netiya, introduced the group and its mission, which is to act as a resource for faith-based institutions all over the city attempting to rethink their food purchasing policies and create garden sites on their campuses. She was particularly excited about the interfaith group that had convened for the event, which included representatives from several local mosques. 

Sue Miller, a lay leader at Leo Baeck Temple who started the synagogue’s Green Team, kicked off the event with a slideshow about the Sustainable Shabbat she created at the congregation. She described the program as a “shop and drop”: An e-mail goes out weekly to a list of some 30 volunteers who sign up to purchase local, organic produce from a farmers market, and they drop it off at Leo Baeck before Shabbat services on Fridays. The temple staff then prepares it and sets it out with locally made hummus for worshippers to snack on, so that alongside cheese and cookies there is an eco-conscious and healthy option to offer.

“We consider this a kind of mindfulness practice,” Miller said of her efforts to green the temple’s food program, which also has included a campaign to make all paper goods on the premises recyclable or compostable. “We start every meal by blessing our food, so the first question we asked ourselves was: Is our food worthy of being blessed?” 

She’s led Leo Baeck’s Green Team in a holistic attempt to narrow the gap among Torah, belief and action, encouraging congregants to make connections between what’s on the dinner table and issues like water pollution and labor rights. 

Bill Shpall, the executive director of Temple Israel of Hollywood, offered another perspective. After tasting the food being served to nursery and day school students at the congregation, he decided that anything he wouldn’t serve to his own children — much less eat himself — had no place at his temple. He empowered a committee to taste test their way through the offerings of a number of caterers, and though taste was the deciding factor, the option they chose was, happily enough, also a vendor invested in sustainable, organic food. 

The program wasn’t without pushback, mostly on the financial side; where previously the school had made money on the lunch program, Temple Israel now only breaks even, he said. It’s worth it, though, Shpall explained, to have twice as many kids eating and enjoying the school’s improved hot lunches as a result of the change — and knowing that the food the temple provides is thoughtfully and ethically sourced. 

“It proved that you can move away from the cheapest option and still be crazy successful,” he said.  

There’s also an attitude switch that came with the lunch change, he added. The temple started hosting catered Friday night dinners once a month, with food from the same vendor. The janitorial staff also now uses a biodegradable cleaning product instead of a variety of environmentally destructive options.

Temple Isaiah’s Rabbi Joel Nickerson recently convened a committee that spent more than a year examining food and Judaism from the ground up, starting with the biblical laws of kashrut and working its way to modern issues of food justice. The committee then sent a survey to the entire congregation to help create an updated and cohesive food policy for the temple. The survey garnered some interesting and impassioned responses, he said.

“People hold synagogues to a higher standard,” Nickerson said. “We’re working on balancing choice with the values of our tradition and making sure people know that, whatever we decide, it’s not a judgment on their personal practices.”

Each of the panelists remarked on the difficulty of making choices for a large and diverse group, especially about something as personal as what to eat. All of the institutions represented were Reform, and though some require kosher-style food be prepared and served on the premises, none require that those vendors be certified kosher.

Paula Daniels, a senior adviser to L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, wrapped up the event by bringing in a citywide perspective. She discussed the fruits of her work with the Los Angeles Food Policy Council. Among its efforts, the council has put together a “good food” procurement policy for organizations looking to green their food sourcing. The Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) already has signed on and is aiming to source 15 percent of its food locally.

One of Daniels’ ultimate goals is to create initiatives that will get produce into corner stores and create regional food hubs around Los Angeles, leveraging the massive buying power of purchasers like LAUSD to create economies of scale that will make organic food cheaper for consumers all over the city. 

“Los Angeles’ problems come in threes,” Daniels said. “West Los Angeles has three times as many supermarkets as South Los Angeles, which has three times as much poverty and three times the rate of obesity and diabetes.” 

While farmers markets have created access to fresh, local, healthy food for consumers in wealthier parts of the city, they can be prohibitively expensive; one of Daniels’ goals is to ensure access to a broader swath of the community.

The final words of the evening came from Got Kosher? owner Alain Cohen, who grew up in a restaurant family in France. He discussed the issue of sustainability from a provider’s perspective, emphasizing how difficult it can be to get high-quality organic product that also is kosher. 

Cohen is proud, though, to be living the laws of his faith: “Kosher is a decision, not a duty,” he said. This statement echoed a sentiment shared by all of the panelists — that while the strict laws of kashrut represent part of Jewish tradition and history, there is more to think about in the modern food world than milk, meat, pork and shellfish.

After the panel concluded, the crowd — an interfaith, intergenerational mix of people from all over the city — munched on vegetables, hummus and challah from Got Kosher?, which has ethical sourcing policies in place, and chatted about what’s been done and all that’s left to do. The Belgian chocolate pretzel challah was a particular favorite, a perfect example of the kind of food the panelists had been praising all evening long: something thoughtfully sourced and carefully made, ethical in its origin and very good to eat.