Since an article was published on the front page of the Washington Post a few weeks ago, using a reference to "Eco-Kashrut", there's a lot more interest in the subject of what we eat, how it's produced and served.
[Reprinted with permission of the [Baltimore] Jewish Times, where it appeared under the title, Eco-Kashrut: Getting Jewish Life On Board. Kashrut is the concept of being Kosher--food that is in compliance with Jewish dietary laws.]
Since an article was published on the front page of the Washington Post a few weeks ago, using a reference to "Eco-Kashrut", there's a lot more interest in the subject of what we eat, how it's produced and served. The article focused mostly on the problems involved in slaughtering animals in a humane manner. But the fact that a mainstream nearby Washington Conservative synagogue (Tifereth Israel) has a committee that was considering the subject was newsworthy enough to write a front page story is itself very noteworthy.
What is Eco-Kashrut? According to ALEPH (Alliance for Jewish Renewal) Executive Director (and Silver Spring resident) Debra Kolodny, the term was coined "25 years ago, by the founder of the Jewish Renewal movement, Rabbi Zalman Schachter Shalomi. In doing so he informed a generation about evaluating food and food production from a spiritual perspective for its healthfulness, its environmental impact, and its treatment of animals and workers."
ALEPH recently developed a 2 year Sacred Food Project, which was an interfaith effort designed to catalyze the power of faith communities to improve the social and environmental conditions of our nation's food system.
"The Sacred Food project takes this idea and expands it to all faith traditions. It says that as people of faith we have a moral obligation to be good stewards of the earth. We must make sure that the way we grow and distribute food honors the land, the water, the air, our bodies and our souls. We believe that faith-based recommendations rooted in morality and social justice and informed by scientific and political realities will influence policy makers, religious institutions and people of faith, thereby permanently changing our food system for the better," Debra explained.
As a farmer and consumer, I've been following these issues closely. I have a lot of questions about ecological considerations especially when produce has to be transported across the country or halfway around the world for our consumption. I'm also sure many of you have read articles about people trying to avoid products from China. Contamination, transportation, ecological issues all can be problematic. And, there are other considerations involving how food products are produced, how workers are treated and corporate ethics in general.
Recently, a group I'm a member of decided to put together a 36th anniversary celebration. The question of choosing a caterer is before us. These issues and concerns were raised as part of the deliberation. Do we just go for the cheapest or do we apply some ethical standards to our decision making? Should we be concerned, for instance, whether or not the caterer pays its employees a living wage and recycles? And what about the food that enters our home? Even though Traders Joe's and Whole Foods projects a wholesome image, to what ethical standard do their buyers adhere? And how about restaurants? Should we be raising these questions when we choose to eat out? And what about fund raising cookouts? Do we just buy the cheapest hot dogs, hamburgers as well as Coke and Pepsi?
These are not new issues. Back in the 1960's many of us (or your parents) were involved in a "Grape Boycott" where the issue of what we ate was connected with the treatment of the workers who picked the product (and with their right to unionize). In fact, the whole history of trade unionism connects the issue of consumption and production.
The real issue is how up close and personal you're willing to get before you consume anything. For many of us, convenience and cost often override all these ethical considerations.
Some caterers and restaurant owners are making a conscious effort to bring more environmental and ethical practices into their business. Andy Shallal, owner of Busboys and Poets in DC shared his philosophy with me. He said, "Food is what binds humanity - what we eat not only has an impact on our bodies, but it also has an impact on our community and the world in which we live in." His practice is to make environmental changes as he is able so for example, now 100% of his electricity comes from wind and sun power. In his catering, he has found renewable, biodegradable plates and utensils made from corn and soy. He buys fair trade, local and organic when ever possible but has to balance these purchases with the need for volume and some semblance of consistency in a restaurant.
So, here's what I've put together. Feel free to apply them to a caterer, in your homes, your organization, political group, house of worship or when eating out.
(for congregations and groups)
1. Are fair trade items used whenever possible (chocolate, coffee or bananas, for example)?
2. Are as many items as possible grown locally on sustainable farms? Are mostly seasonal items used?
3. Are foods that heal, nurture and sustain given priority over fatty, sugary and fried foods?
4. Has much of the food been purchased from food co-ops, local businesses and farmers in bulk?
5. Is the food purchased from a union supermarket or business?
Caterers and Restaurants:
6. Are fair trade items used whenever possible (chocolate, coffee or bananas, for example)?
7. Do the caterers pay their employees a living wage?
8. Do the caterers use reusable and recyclable plates, cups and utensils?
9. Will the beverage menu exclude high fructose corn syrup items such as Coke and Pepsi?
10. Do the caterers use sustainably grown meats and fish;? Are the animals treated (living conditions, grazing) and slaughtered in a humane manner?
11. Are the usable leftovers contributed to shelters or food banks?
12. How do cost and affordability factor into event decisions?
13. Does the cleanup include clearly marked containers for compost, recycling and reusable items?
14. Does your group have an ongoing educational program aimed at protecting children and adults from unhealthy and exploitive corporate advertising and branding?
16. Is the event accessible via public transportation or has a carpool been arranged?
17. Does the caterer or store avoid purchasing genetically modified and irradiated foods? Does the store in which the food was purchased have such a policy?
18. Are the servers, and other workers hired for the event publicly acknowledged and thanked?
19. Is the food purchased from a union supermarket or business?
Michael Tabor is a co-founder of Shomrei Adamah, a Washington, D.C. area Jewish environmentalists group.
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