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By Yannai Kranzler

First Lady, Michele Obama, Digging out the Obama's New Veggie Garden, Together with Fifth Graders from the Bancroft Elementary School

I’m pretty sure there’s still no planned war against the species of Corn. But it turns out that the Obama family actually is turning the White House Lawn, or at least a chunk of it, into an organic garden, contrary to an article I published before the weekend. Spearheaded by First Lady Michele, the garden involves replacing 1000 square feet of grass with 55 species of veggies, herbs and berries.

To quote the NY Times article that printed the story last week:

While the organic garden will provide food for the first family’s meals and formal dinners, its most important role, Mrs. Obama said, will be to educate children about healthful, locally grown fruit and vegetables at a time when obesity and diabetes have become a national concern.

“My hope,” the first lady said in an interview in her East Wing office, “is that through children, they will begin to educate their families and that will, in turn, begin to educate our communities.”

Brought in as special advisors to the project were twenty three fifth graders from Bancroft Elementary School in Washington. Their school has mantained its own garden since 2001, and they will now till and tend at the White House.

If only I could be wrong like this all the time! What can I say- I guessed a giant kitchen garden at the Executive Mansion too good to be true.

Obviously, the global significance of the new garden is mostly symbolic. But symbolism is a powerful tool for change, and the Obamas’ new garden is a powerful symbol that hopefully will inspire change. Michael Pollan cites Eleanor Roosevelt’s famous Victory Garden as an example, when the first lady planted veggies on the White House Lawn during World War II, spawning a home gardening movement throughout the country that ended up supplying 40% of American-grown produce during the war.

At a time when the food industry accounts for more greenhouse gas emissions than anything else we do, a White House full of homegrown, local food can prove very meaningful indeed.

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By Yannai Kranzler

The American Army has yet to declare war on the species of Corn, despite Michael Pollan’s warnings that it is plotting to take over the world. But despite failing to convince the military to attack a vegetable, there is little doubt that Pollan has had a remarkable influence on the way people think about food.

Michael Pollan

Michael Pollan

In Pollan’s newest book, In Defense of Food, he suggests, among other things, reclaiming time-tested traditional menus of the past. Much of modern man’s eating disorder, says Pollan, stems from ditching mom for food science, cultural wisdom for the back of a cereal box, in order to determine the day’s menu.

Although Pollan, despite his Jewish roots does not mention it, this approach is a classically Jewish one: The Hebrew word for progress is Hitkadmut. Oddly enough, the root of the word Hitkadmut is Kedem, which means, “Before.” Moving forward well, our language is telling us, is contingent upon consulting our past. As we charge speedily ahead, we need, every once in a while, to backtrack and pick up the pieces we’ve left behind.

The following are Pollan’s rules for better eating, as written in In Defense of Food, based on the well-known Pollan mantra, “Eat Food. Not Too Much. Mostly Plants.” (Click Here to buy the book from Amazon.com) I’ve stuck these rules onto our fridge at home (Right next to the magnet with the number of the pizza delivery guy). Feel free to do the same. Beteavon! (Hebrew for Bon Apatit).

1. Don’t eat anything your great grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.

2. Avoid food products containing ingredients that are, A) unfamiliar, B) unpronounceable, C) more than five in number, or that include D) High Fructose Corn Syrup.

3. Avoid food products that make health claims.

4. Shop the peripheries of the supermarket and stay out of the middle.

5. Get out of the supermarket whenever possible.

6. Eat mostly plants, especially leaves.

7. You are what you eat eats, too.

8. If you have space, buy a freezer.

9. Eat like an omnivore.

10. Eat well-grown food from healthy soils.

11. Eat wild foods when you can.

12. Be the kind of person who takes supplements. (Although don’t necessarily take supplements).

13. Eat more like the French. Or the Italians. Or the Japanese. Or the Indians. Or the Greeks.

14. Regard non-traditional foods with skepticism.

15. Don’t look for the magic bullet in the traditional diet.

16. Have a glass of wine with dinner.

17. Pay more, eat less.

18. Eat Meals.

19. Do all your eating a a table. No, a desk is not a table.

20. Don’t get your fuel from the same place your car does.

21. Try not to eat alone.

22. Consult your gut.

23. Eat slowly.

24. Cook and, if you can, plant a garden.

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Jewish Climate Initiative/Climate of Change‘s Rabbi Julian Sinclair’s speaking tour in the States continues for one more weekend: (more…)

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In continuation of our discussion on local food, the following is a Dvar Torah Rabbi Sinclair wrote for Canfei Nesharim‘s Eitz Chaim Hee Torah Commentary Series.

Do we know who grows our food? Does it matter? This question was first raised for me five years ago when I was the Campus Rabbi at England’s Cambridge University. Invited to High Table dinner with the professors at one of the colleges, I was surprised to discover that most of the conversation among some of Britain’s leading minds revolved around the food.

“This venison’s inedible,” complained an irascible professor of physics. “Absolutely,” agreed an elderly Nobel Laureate. “We had a cook here in the seventies who would never serve an animal he didn’t know
personally.” (more…)

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By Rabbi Julian Sinclair

It may seem odd to be writing about shmitta six and a half years before the next Sabbatical year. Not at all. We need to start thinking and planning now if the Shmitta of 2014-15 is to be a time of ecological, economic and spiritual renewal for the Jewish people, rather than an unseemly political squabble.

I’m heading off next week to Hazon’s food conference in Assilomar. Hazon has even set up a website as a focus of public discussion for the next shmitta. Prompted by the stockmarket crash, imminent global recession, as well as having to prepare a couple of talks about shmitta for the trip to California, here are some thoughts that hopefully take that discussion a little further:

The causes of the economic crash are at the same time incredibly complicated and extremely simple. The simple version is that the US mortage and housing market broke free of some fundamental principles about buying houses. Once upon a time, to buy a house, you had to work hard, save a lot of money, and maybe supplement your savings with a mortgage that you arranged with a banker who knew you personally, and with whom you took responsibility for the repayment of your loan.

No longer. Over the last ten years, banks have advanced huge mortgages to people they never met, with little regard to their ability to repay. The mortgage assets were then parceled up and sold to other banks and investment houses increasingly removed from the original house buyers. All this was done out of a perfect faith in the endless upward trend of the housing markets. When house prices ceased to defy gravity, thousands of home owners defaulted on mortgage payments, mortgage-based assets became almost worthless, and large distinguished banks who held a lot of those assets collapsed, nearly bringing down the world financial system with them.

It’s an old story. Charles Mackay wrote a classic history of financial crises called “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds,” first published in London in 1841. “Money … has often been a cause of the delusion of multitudes. Sober nations have all at once become desperate gamblers, and risked almost their existence upon the turn of a piece of paper. Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one.”

Financial bubbles, like the one in the housing market  happen when people’s hopes, expectations and greed-driven delusions about the value of their assets lose all contact with the underlying economic reality. The more sophisticated our economic system, the more we can engineer assets that have less and less to do with real things and the more extreme the bubble.  Markets periodically and harshly correct these fits of wishful thinking, at the cost of great economic suffering. Often those who suffer most have done least to cause the problem.

Some of the less well known teachings of Shmitta are exactly about managing and moderating this tendency for economic activity to cut its roots in the earth from which it grows. Once every seven years we are meant to return to an intimate connection with the source of all wealth. A few examples:

1.   You can’t trade on food grown in the Shmitta year. You can eat it, give it away or leave it for the poor, but you may not turn it into a commodity. (Rambam Laws of Shmitta, 6:1 This is based on a derasha of Vayikra 25:6:  “It shall be a Sabbatical year to eat.” “To eat and not a trade on it.” (Talumd, Sukkah 40a.)

2.   Food from the Shmitta year should be treated as food, Not as a compress for a wound, or air freshener, or biofuels, or anything else that food products can be used for. This is based on the same verse from Vayikra 25: 6 “to eat.” Once in seven years we get back to an awareness of food as food, not as a commodity or raw material for some other manufacturing process.

3.  In the Shmitta year we return to a relationship with food that is seasonal.  If you gather and store fruit from the shmitta year in your house, once that fruit has disappeared from the fields and trees, you can no longer eat what is stored in your house out of season. (Laws of Shmitta, 7:1)

4.  In the Shmitta we return to a relationship with food that is local. The seasonal requirement that we just saw is based on regional divisions of the Land of Israel. If the pomegranate season is over in your area, then you can’t eat them, even if they are still growing somewhere else in the country. (Laws of Shmitta, 7:9)

And so on. These laws are all about returning to an immediate relationship with the food we eat, as food and connected to a particular time and place. Food is the most basic economic index. The Shmitta is about ceasing to distort, quantify or objectify our connection to the source of sustenance.

How do we use this value of returning to an immediate connection with economic fundamantals as a corrective to boom-bust economics? Let the discussion continue! We have six and a half years to get it right for the shmitta year, but we the world needs a way to actualize these values even sooner.

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As featured on Hazon’s The Jew and the Carrot.

By Nina Budabin McQuown.

Rabbi Julian Sinclair is an author, educator, and economist. He is also the co-founder and Director of Education for Jewish Climate Initiative, a Jerusalem based NGO that is articulating and mobilizing a Jewish response to climate change.  Before starting JCI, Julian worked as an economist advising the UK Government and for a British political think tank.  Meanwhile, he authored the book Lets Schmooze: Jewish Words Today and is working on completing a Phd in the mystical thought of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook.  Phew!

Sinclair lives in Jerusalem and has been featured on NPR and interviewed for the New York Times by our own Leah Koenig.  Hazon is delighted to invite Rabbi Sinclair as a presenter at this year’s Hazon Food Conference, December 25-28, 2008.

Get a sneak peek at what Julian has to say below the jump.  And find out more/ register for Hazon’s Food Conference, here!

How did the Jewish Climate Initiative begin?

RJS: It began from a conversation between Michael Kagan, a friend of mine, and a friend of his, David Miron Wapner. Michael and David both come from a business/ clean technology background. Michael is a scientist and inventor who is currently involved in an algae-for-biofuels start-up. He is also a Jewish spiritual teacher. David works on US-Israel science and technology partnerships and sits on the JNF board. They suddenly realized three things: that climate change was huge, that the response out there was nowhere near adequate, and that the Jewish people had something potentially unique to contribute. Then Michael started talking to me, I got inspired by the idea.

For a long time I’ve thought that Judaism had immensely relevant wisdom to offer on environmental and economic question: Shabbat, Shemita, the detailed talmudic system of environmental law and much more. When I was working as an economist in the UK government and studying at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard fifteen years ago, I was very, very excited about these connections. As I got more into Jewish life and learning, eventually becoming a rabbi and educator, this passion took a back seat. It just wasn’t where most of the Jewish world was at. But I always felt I would come back to it. Then when the opportunity came along to co-found JCI, I realized that this was my chance to put the pieces back together. A few months later I quit my job and started working full time for JCI.

You pose this question as the basis of one of your talks: “Jews are 0.002% of the earth’s population. Even if we all trade in our SUV’s tomorrow it will barely make a dent on the problem. What then do have to contribute to the world’s most pressing moral challenge?” How does the Jewish Climate Initiative address this issue?

RJS: I think that originally it was Nigel Savage‘s question. We address it by identifying three areas in which the Jewish people have contributed way out of proportion to our numbers. 1. Torah. Jewish teaching has quite simply been the basis of ethics and spirituality for the entire Western world. 2. Activism: Jews have been at the forefront of the big movements for social change (feminism, environmentalism, Civil Rights) in a way that is totally disproportionate to our numbers. 3. Science and Technology. 20th century science was advanced to an incredible degree by discoveries from Jewish scientists. Today that remarkable creativity is continued by the hi-tech sector in Israel, a country of six million people that is the biggest tech hub outside Silicon Valley. Each of these three interconnected areas in which the Jewish people have excelled is crucial for overcoming climate change.

The section of the Jewish Climate Initiative’s website that is devoted to ethics is large. Why is ethics such a focus of the Jewish Climate Initiative?

RJS: The practical answer is that this is the area in which JCI elected to begin working. The principled response is that climate change is an ethical issue. The lifestyles of those in the rich world are already contributing to famine, drought and devastating weather conditions in countries that have done least to cause the problem. If that’s not an ethical issue, what is?

Certainly, the solution will require governments, laws and lots of money. But 70% of the American economy is accounted for by consumer spending. The seemingly huge problem of climate change is actually made up of billions of little decisions about the way we move around, heat and air condition our homes, and eat. Each one of those is an ethical question on which Judaism has much to teach.

You spoke on NPR about the controversial Shemita year ruling in 2007. How did life change for Jews in Israel (in terms of agriculture) during this past year?

RJS: It wasn’t a transformative spiritual experience for most people. At the beginning there was a round of politicking about produce certification, then Shemita receded from general consciousness. For the religious, it was one more thing to look for on food labels. Next time around, may Shemita in Israel reach its potential as a year of economic, agricultural and spiritual renewal. For that to happen, we will need to start thinking and planning now.

What other issues face Israelis in particular as consumers of food?

RJS: One good thing is that in a small country that grows a lot of its own food, most Israelis are locavores. We don’t eat stuff that has been trucked thousands of miles across the country like most people do in the US.

How does climate change affect the sustainable agriculture movement?

RJS: According to Michael Pollan and many others, the food you eat is the largest single contributor to the average American’s carbon footprint. When you factor in the fossil fuels in chemical fertilizer, the excess methane emitted by belching, farting cows that are force-fed corn and antibiotics when they were designed to eat grass, and the gas used in transportation, it amounts to a whopping 20-25% of individuals’ greenhouse gas emissions. It’s incredible that such a basic human activity as eating can be done in a way that is so destructive. Once this fact sinks in widely, and we start to see government policy that put a price on carbon emissions, sustainable agriculture should receive a huge boost.

In your life, where does your role as an activist against climate change intersect with your role as a consumer of food?

RJS: I have started shopping at the Shuk in Machane Yehuda more. The fruit and vegetables in the market just pulsate with color, freshness and health, and the packaging and transport needed to get it there and then for me to take it home is minimal—we’ve begun bringing cloth shopping bags from home. It’s not a huge step, but at least it’s something.

Mahane Yehuda Market

Mahane Yehuda Market

What lessons can the sustainable foods movement learn from the climate change movement?

RJS: I actually think that more lessons can be learned in the opposite direction. One thing that the climate change movement does very well is apocalyptic rhetoric. Apocalyptic rhetoric is great for getting headlines, but poor at motivating action. People just become closed down and paralyzed. Maybe the sustainable foods movement needs its “Inconvenient Truth” to bring home the scale and seriousness of the issues. But more importantly, the climate change movement needs to learn positive ways of influencing people. It’s an easy-sell to show people that local, organic food is healthier, yummier and will enhance their lives. In analogous ways, climate change activists need to make the case that simpler lifestyles with less running around, less commuting and less hassle will bring better and more fulfilled lives.

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