Observing Tu B’Shevat through fruit trees and food justice

Across the globe this month Jewish communities are celebrating the holiday of Tu B’Shevat.  Many choose to commemorate the “New Year of The Trees” by planting pine trees in Israel.  Tu B’Shevat is a day that deals directly with the social inequality of our food system.  It’s a holiday that can inspire us to think about building community food security. Why not plant fruit trees right here in Los Angeles to grow more food?

In Los Angeles County, 16.8% of residents (1.6 million people) went hungry in 2010. (Source: Map the Meal Gap, Feeding America http://www.lafoodbank.org/map-the-gap.aspx ). According to a California Food Policy Advocates report, “2010 Los Angeles County Nutrition and Food Insecurity Profile,” 57.4 percent of adults are overweight or obese and 12.9 percent of children are overweight in Los Angeles.  Hunger is a huge and complicated problem that is also wrapped up in the obesity crisis and it requires the collaboration of government, businesses, faith-based institutions, and non-profits to address.  

[RELATED: Tu B'Shevat – Netiya sows seeds of social justice]

In the Mishnah, where Tu B’Shevat is found, the purpose of the holiday is to make a single day in which our produce is taxed and given to the community. It’s based from a single line of Torah: “At the end of three years you shall bring forth all the tithe of your produce in that year, and shall lay it up inside your gates; And the Levite, because he has no part nor inheritance with you, and the stranger, and the orphan, and the widow, who are inside your gates, shall come, and shall eat and be satisfied.“ (Deuteronomy 14:28).

Tu B’Shevat is an opportunity to more closely examine hunger and how to respond most effectively to ensure that hungry people have access to nutritious, healthy foods. Netiya,  a new city-wide network of faith-based institutions, is growing and tithing food to strengthen local food systems, and empowering ethical and informed food purchasing among our constituents. Through the seven gardens installed at Netiya member congregations, we are growing vegetables and fruits that are then tithed to food pantries. This is in accordance with the tradition of ma'aser, giving 10% of your harvest to the underserved in your community. In fact, however, we request that our members donate at least 90%, and most are doing so.

We challenge you to consider what it would look like for 10% of our city’s religious institutions to take ma’aser one step further and convert 10% of your unused institutional land (perhaps landscaped now with shrubs, annuals, or grass) into edible, productive crops to address hunger in our city. This wouldn’t require tearing up your parking lot to install a farm. Your institution could plant raised beds, or a vertical wall garden, fruit trees around your perimeter, window-box planters, or even a roof-top garden.  

Here are suggestions for ways individuals and congregations can respond to hunger in Los Angeles:

1. Reconsider food relief, move beyond the cans. Instead of cans, provide a monetary donation to an agency to purchase food in bulk.  According to the LA Times, “A $10 donation ends up leveraging as much as $200 worth of food for the charity to distribute.”  (LA Times, Nov 18, 2011: http://articles.latimes.com/2011/nov/18/opinion/la-oe-arnold-canned-food-20111118)    

2. Ask, “What is needed most?” Call your local food pantry to ask what nutritious food items are needed prior to making a donation. Items such as beans, oatmeal and peanut butter are more useful than the expired, dusty jar of odd sauce tucked in the back of your cabinet.

3. Donate fresh produce to a local pantry. Giving away food that you’ve grown calls upon a very different kind of Golden-Rule-giving. We are fortunate to have an abundance of produce year-round in Southern California. A Netiya member, Temple Isaiah, is collecting fresh produce from its members to donate to JFS/SOVA food pantry each week.  Find a recipient agency to receive your fresh produce through AmpleHarvest.org.

4. Raise money for a pantry to expand nutritious food offerings. This can enable the purchase of refrigeration to store fresh produce, the bulk order of vegetables from a local farm or perhaps the installation of a garden.

5. Glean from your yard or neighborhood. Volunteer with Food Forward (www.foodforward.org) to get fresh fruit donated to local pantries. Gleaning, one of four Jewish agrarian laws of giving, more commonly known today as food rescue, encourages the collection of produce from backyard gardens and local farms for donation to emergency food providers.  

6. Donate your time. Cook and serve food at Project Chicken Soup, a local organization that prepares and delivers free, healthy meals to people living with HIV/AIDS and other illnesses.

7. Plant a tree at home. Build a garden at your religious institution with Netiya.  Consider celebrating Tu B’Shevat by planting a fruit tree here at home. You can teach others to grow food to increase self-reliance. According to Maimonides, a great Jewish scholar and physician of the 12th century, giving your time and skills to help foster self-reliance for another person is the highest form of giving.  

The hunger in our city resonates because this food crisis is also a spiritual crisis. On this Tu B’Shevat, let’s reinvigorate the holiday’s original purpose, by doing our part to make hunger relief healthier, more respectful and more in line with our shared values. The solutions will be found in the halls of Congress, the pews of our congregations and the beds of our urban gardens. Here's to a future in which we all have access to an abundance of healthy food.

You can help by volunteering at these upcoming events:

– Project Chicken Soup, Jan. 27, 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. for a Just Gardens installation and a roundtable discussion with leaders from Los Angeles’ food movement on “Food Relief: Beyond the Cans.”

– Temple Aliyah, Feb. 3 at 10 a.m. for a free workshop on organic pest control in your orchard, and fruit tree pruning in the Just Garden Netiya installed on Mitzvah Day.

– For more information on these events, visit netiya.org.

Devorah Brous is founding executive director of Netiya.  Sarah Newman is an executive committee member of Netiya