Help Fight Against Hunger This Summer

Summer time is the quintessential season for picnics, family reunions, and backyard BBQs, where food is often in abundance. As you fill up on seconds or contemplate that second piece of cake, you may not realize that 1 in 6 people in America face hunger and approximately 49 million Americans struggle to put food on the table. “Food insecurity”, also known as the lack of access to have enough food for all household members, affects millions of households throughout the country, many of which have children.


Adequate nutrition is important to maintain the physical and mental health of individuals of every age, but is even more crucial for children who are still in the developmental stages. During the school year, an estimated 22 million children get free or reduced-priced meals through the National School Lunch Program. However, when school is out for the summer, only about 3.9 million receive meals through the USDA Summer Food Service Program.


Food is taken for granted, particularly if no one has ever experienced what it’s like to go hungry). Even if you’ve never faced hunger first hand, there are ways to help fight against hunger in your community during the summer months:

Donate to a Local Food Bank


Many people make food donations to their local food bank during the “season of giving”, but most food banks accept and rely on food donations year round. Each time you go to the grocery store, stock up on a few extra items to donate. While many food banks will accept whatever they get in donations, it may be a smart idea to see what items they need or would prefer to receive. Some ideas for food donations include non-perishable proteins such as peanut butter, baby items (diapers, food, and formula), healthy snack foods for kids, condiments/spices, and personal hygiene products.

Make a Monetary Donation


If you want to do something more than donating actual food, consider making a monetary donation to a summer food program in your area. You can make a one time donation or sign up to be a sponsor throughout the school year.

Utilize Your Green Thumb


In many cities throughout the country, there are community gardens, in which the harvested fruits and vegetables are donated to local food banks. If you have a green thumb or even know how to water and pull a few weeds, there’s a good chance that your help will be greatly appreciated. Additionally, if you have excess harvest at your home garden, consider donating to a food bank rather than letting your harvest go to waste.



Another good way to fight against hunger in your community is by volunteering. Whether you gather a group of friends together to help prepare a meal at a food kitchen, stock shelves at a food bank, host a food drive, or deliver meals to families with young children or senior citizens, you are actively fighting against hunger in your community.


Message Be Heard!

Idealists have a problem with marketing when it comes to spreading their message. For people who focus on doing good in the world, spreading messages via ads and media can seem like a dirty business. According to their thinking, marketing is the exact same sort of manipulative behavior that corporations, lobbyists, and other big evil bodies spend their dollars on.


Marketing may be ugly, but it’s a necessary evil. People who improve the world can’t get their message across if they keep their thoughts in their heads and among a small circle of friends. Effective change can only happen if activists and other progressive community members spread the good word to people outside their social circles. Here are a few easy DIY ways to whip up discussion and awareness for any issue.

Organize Your Message!

When people get together, they make things happen. And luckily, people love getting together. Clubs, activists communities, and other organizations (both formal and informal) are crucial catalysts for change. Form a group if you want to stir up energy for change. People will bring exciting new ideas for protesting, message spreading, community building, and activism.


It’s easy to form a group. Ask a few like-minded friends to put aside a few hours a month, meet at in a living room or coffee shop, bring what they’ve got to the table. Doing so in public has the advantage of offering some free (albeit minor) publicity—you never know who’s going to be sitting at the next table, and chances are you’ll meet allies if you gather in the right place.

Don’t Neglect Social Media!

People down put social media as frivolous. Sure, social media can be frivolous, but when used well, socially aware users can elevate their online posts above the standard array of cat videos and pictures of fancy food. People spend most of their time on the internet these days, and there’s no way you can get your message across if you don’t reach those web-based citizens.


The other obvious advantage of social media is that it’s mostly free. Anyone can start a Facebook group with a few flicks of the wrist. Befriend a few influential people, and you’ll gather momentum and followers in no time. Good social media advertising can get your ideas and actions heaps of attention with no work at all.


So don’t be a snob about social media. You need it if you’re going to attract everyday people. And everyday people are who every movement needs to attract if it’s going to move beyond small meetings among similar-minded people.

Keep Your Message Real!

Don’t get stuck online. Social media are important, but you can’t rely on your Instagram account to ignite revolution. The world is tired of empty online ideals and ineffective slacktivism. Make sure that you and your groups leave the basements and march out onto the real world. Posting flyers at coffee shops, performing street theater activism, and marching in public are essential ingredients for real change. A digital revolution occurs in the mind; a real revolution occurs in the streets.

Care Packages for the Homeless

As the holidays roll around, many of us are inspired to give more than any other time of the year, especially when considering care packages for the homeless. A group of individuals that benefit from giving year round is the homeless population. Homelessness can happen at any time and maybe you have experienced it yourself. Homelessness affects men, women, and children. It affects the young, the old, the healthy, the unwell. Not every homeless individual has a drug and alcohol problem or a mental health issue. Never judge someone who doesn’t have a home, try to understand their stories.


According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, there are over 500,000 people experiencing homelessness on any given night across the U.S. and approximately 15% of the homeless population are considered “chronically homeless” while about 9% of the homeless population are veterans.


Homelessness is a huge issue in the United States and many people want to help, but don’t know what to do. Creating and distributing care packages are a great way to offer a helping hand to an individual who doesn’t have a permanent residence. There are many checklists for care packages on the internet, but it’s always a good idea to make packages that are useful. While all care packages are well-intentioned, some items are better than others.

Suggestions for Care Packages


When you create a care package, think about the essentials and what will be long lasting and most portable.


  • Socks: Many homeless individuals, without a car, spend a great amount of time walking to and from appointments. A fresh pair of socks can do wonders on tired feet. Band-aids or blister pads are also helpful.


  • Food: While some individuals have the opportunity for at least one hot meal from a meal center, many need high protein, quick and easy snacks to eat throughout the day. Steer clear of sticky, hard, or overly sweet foods (like candy) that can put strain on teeth. For many, regular dental care is not an option. Applesauce, pudding, trail mix, beef jerky, and instant soup cups are a better idea.


  • Toiletries: While a bar of soap can go a long way, it can ruin a bag full of food. If an individual has a chance to shower, it’s highly likely that soap is already available. A better option would be baby or cleansing wipes. Other helpful toiletries include a toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant, a comb, unscented lotion. Avoid mouthwash, hand sanitizer, or any products that contain alcohol.


Some Extras


You may tempted to give money, but it’s difficult to know how helpful it will really be. Instead, offer a gift card to a coffeeshop or a sandwich shop. Travel mugs, hand/foot warmers, and extra cold weather clothing could also be helpful.


When you distribute your care package, take the time to talk to the individual, learn his or her story. Many homeless individuals are not “beggars”. While your contribution will most likely be appreciated, keep in mind that it is also difficult to accept help. Have a nice simple conversation with your recipient, you may find that you have a lot in common.

Important Life Skills to Teach Your Children

Loving and helping your children is a source of happiness for them, and for you as a parent. Life skills are desirable or necessary skills that are needed to participate in everyday life. Teaching your child important and useful skills that he or she can use now and into the future is a valuable parental gift of help, and love.

Basic Life Skills for Young Children

Life skills taught should be age-appropriate for your child. Young children are learning about the world in which they live, and need life skills tools which help them interact safely in their environment.

Learning to get along with others begins when very young, and continues throughout a lifetime. Even the youngest child is presented with life situations that require decision-making, and a wise parent teaches basic age-appropriate life skills to foster good judgment.

Basic life skills learned early serve as a strong foundation and building block for the many life skills a child continues to learn as he or she grows to young adulthood, and beyond.

Some simple but powerful life skills tools for the very young include:

  • Set a good example for your child. He or she will learn from you how to treat others by the way treat him or her.
  • Teach your child good manners. Saying “please” and “thank you” lasts a lifetime.
  • Teach your child kindness; to siblings, other children, and to other living things.
  • Teach your child honesty. Do not punish a child for telling the truth, but help them to understand why it is important to be truthful with self and others.
  • Teach your child respect for self, for others, for living things, and for the environment.
  • Teach your child when to use caution, but do not teach your child to be afraid. Caution should be used around people they do not know. Teach them never to go with a stranger, and to go to Mom or Dad about it first.
  • Teach your child basic safety:
    • Drivers often do not see small children, so cars are dangerous. Never run in front of a car. Look both ways before you cross the street. Never ride your tricycle or bicycle into the street.
  • Teach your child to use caution with an animal they do not know, and that does not know them. The natural curiosity and love of a child draws them to animals. Teach them to go to Mom or Dad about it first.
  • The small size and lack of life experience of a child makes them especially prone to dog bites.

Teach your child that a strange dog might not be friendly to everyone, and not to pet or hug it. It is best to leave it alone, and just walk calmly and quietly away.

Basic Life Skills for Older Children and Pre-Teens

  • Teach your children the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”, beginning when they are very young. Continue to teach it as they grow-up, encouraging them to try and treat others as they would want to be treated.
  • Teach growing children the lifelong value of competency and excellence in their chosen fields of interest.
  • Teach your children the facts about drugs and drug use, and what to do when they are faced with the opportunity or invitation to use.
  • Teach your soon-to-be adult child how to manage a bank account, establish and follow a budget, establish and manage credit, apply for a job, do a job interview, and how to purchase his or her first car.

Most importantly, encourage your children to follow their dreams in pursuit of a happy and worthwhile life.

One year after Newtown

One Year After Newtown: Guns & Children

One year after Newtown

Letting Go

In the days and weeks immediately after the December 14, 2012 tragedy at Sandy Hook  Elementary School when 20 elementary school children and 6 adults were killed by a gunman, cries for stiffer gun control laws reached a fever pitch.  The screams to leave gun laws alone or even to relax them were just as loud.  Seemingly everyone had an opinion from the President, to politicians on both sides of the aisle, to gun lobby groups, to gun control advocacy groups, to parents of Sandy Hook victims, to other moms and dads.  Even children weighed in on the issue.  It is now a little over a year since the shooting.  Sandy Hook is no longer regularly making national headlines.  Sound bites from the National Rifle Association no longer top the evening news.  It seems as if little has changed in the last 12 months.  Or has it?

Changes in State Law

While Congress did not make any changes to gun control laws, state legislatures did.  In the year since Sandy Hook, over 114 measures were passed that affected state gun laws.

Strengthening Gun Control

Eleven states, plus the District of Columbia passed laws that strengthened gun control.  Two states made it harder to carry guns in public.  Eighteen states and the District of Columbia passed laws that made it easier for the government to track guns.  For example, Maryland and New York now require that lost or stolen firearms be reported, and Rhode Island makes it illegal to tamper with identification marks on firearms.  Fifteen states strengthened mental health restrictions related to gun ownership.   California, for example, now requires psychotherapists whose patients threaten violence to report the threats, and Colorado requires that mental health records be reported to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.

Weakening Gun Control

Twenty-nine states passed laws that made it easier for people to own guns and carry them in public places such as schools, bars, and casinos.  Twenty-six states added laws that strengthened the ability to carry concealed firearms in public.   Seven states now allow guns to be carried in schools.  For example, Alabama now allows school security personnel and resource officers to carry firearms, and Oklahoma allows handguns in private schools and on private school buses.  Alabama, Alaska, Kansas and Missouri all passed laws that prohibited state officials from enforcing certain aspects of federal gun control laws or nullified federal gun control laws.

A Kansas city personal injury attorney remarks that clearly most people believe that the gun violence in the United States needs to stop.  No one wants even one more child injury from gun violence.  No one wants a repeat of the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Columbine High School, the Aurora, Colorado movie theater, Virginia Polytechnic Institute, or the Tucson, Arizona Safeway.  However, people disagree on the most effective way to stop the gun violence.  Some believe that fewer guns in society will result in fewer shootings.  Others believe that more guns in the hands of lawful citizens will result in fewer gun deaths by criminals.  What types of policies do you believe will have a meaningful affect on gun violence in the United States?

Military Women Objectified

The Military’s Sexual-Assault Laws: Friendly Fire

Military Women ObjectifiedIn recent years several high-profile military sexual assault cases have left the military open to criticism.  Furthermore, the government has released troubling data on the frequency of military sexual assaults.  According to the Department of Labor 20-48% of female veterans have been sexually assaulted and 80% have been sexually harassed.  Critics are not just disappointed that the assaults occurred.  Critics are disappointed, surprised and angered as to how such cases have been handled by the military justice system.  As a result, several members of Congress have proposed changes in the way the military handles accusations of sexual assault.  The goal is to both reduce the number of sexual assaults and to ensure that both the accuser and accused are treated fairly when there is an accusation of sexual assault.

Current Law

Currently, military law gives a commander a tremendous amount of authority over the course of action when there is an accusation of sexual assault.  Indeed, the commander decides whether or not to refer the case to the military prosecutor or not.  The commander can even have convictions dismissed.  For example, earlier this year Air Force Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin overturned the sexual-assault conviction of Lt. Col. James Wilkerson, who like Franklin is a fighter pilot. In the relatively small military world it is not uncommon for the commander to know and even be friends with the accused.  Sadly, the commander is sometimes the accused rapist.  As a consequence victims are often reluctant to report assaults  and reported assaults are sometimes not fully investigated.   Accusers have been the subject of harassment and retaliation.

A Macon personal injury lawyer notes that the way the military handles sexual assault cases and other crimes is very different from how such cases are handled in the civilian world.  In a civilian case, typically the accuser informs either the police or a prosecutor of the attack.  If an investigation uncovers sufficient evidence of an assault the accused is arrested and criminally charged.  A criminal trial is held and a jury determines the fate of the defendant based on evidence presented by both the prosecution and the defense.  During this process steps are taken to shield the identity of the accuser from the public and to ensure that the accuser is not victimized or demonized.  In cases where there is not sufficient evidence to prosecute (or even where there is a prosecution), the victim has the option of pursuing a personal injury case against the perpetrator.

Proposed Changes

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., proposes an amendment that would remove sexual-assault cases from the usual military chain of command.  Thus, only military prosecutors would have the authority to investigate and prosecute military sexual assault cases.  Military commanders would also be stripped of their authority to dismiss court-martial convictions in cases of rape, sexual assault and other crimes.  Furthermore, Gillibrand’s proposal would make it a crime to retaliate against a victim for reporting being attacked. This proposal is sharply opposed by the Pentagon and does not generally have strong support in Congress.

Senators Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) offers a competing proposal on the issue of military sexual assault cases that appears to be more palatable to both the Pentagon and members of Congress. McCaskill’s proposal would also strip commanders of their authority to dismiss court-martial rape and sexual assault convictions. It too would  make it a crime to retaliate against a victim for reporting an attack. The significant difference between McCaskill’s proposal and Gillibrand’s proposal is that McCaskill’s proposal leaves authority and accountability within the current military chain of command.  Both proposals, however, recognize that a change is necessary to protect victims.

In addition to the legal aspects related to investigating and prosecuting sexual assault cases, there are psychological nuances that make such cases best handled by those with specialized training and experience.  In what way if any should a “specialist” be involved in the investigation or prosecution of military sexual assault cases?

modern day slavery

Modern Slavery in Quatar: Wrongful Death

When it was announced that Qatar would be hosting the 2022 FIFA World Cup, it seemed like a great victory for the Middle East. Qatar would be the first Arab State to run a World Cup. However, shortly after Qatar won their bid, controversy surrounding the country’s extremely high temperature climate during the summer and their laws banning alcohol and homosexuality began to arise in the media. While efforts are being made to make sure all the players feel welcome and accommodated in the country, Qatar’s also coming under fire for their unethical use of migrant workers for the construction of stadiums, roads, hotels, and other buildings relating to the World Cup infrastructure. The conditions for these workers are so harsh, Qatari Government has been accused of engaging in “Modern slavery.”

Modern Day Slavery

Under the frequently criticized Kafala system, migrant workers from mostly Nepal (but also other countries in the Middle East) are legally at the mercy of their employers. This means that, in Qatar, it is very easy for an employer to mistreat its migrant worker without any legal repercussions. According to the Guardian, these various mistreatments have led to, on average, one wrongful death a day over the last summer, mostly due to heart attacks, heart failure and on-site “accidents.” These deaths are caused by poor and cramped living conditions, little to no food or even water, working on an empty stomach, and dangerous work environments. Many of these Nepalese workers relocated to Qatar for work and a better life…unfortunately the promise was not the reality. Even if they wanted to, many of these migrant workers cannot leave because many employers (their “in-country sponsors” under Kafala) are either withholding their pay to discourage them from running away or refusing them the visas that would allow them to leave the country.

In America, if a worker is personally injured on site, they are legally guaranteed some form of compensation. Unfortunately for these Nepalese migrant workers in Qatar, they are not granted that right. In fact, many of these migrant workers’ identifications and passports are confiscated, essentially turning them into illegal aliens.

Bringing the Issue to Light

The British newspaper The Guardian was one of the first presses to really bring this unethical practice to light, writing, “The overall picture is of one of the richest nations exploiting one of the poorest to get ready for the world’s most popular sporting tournament.” The Human Rights Watch, an international human rights organization, has similarly referred the Qatar Kafala as being exploitative in a 146 page report released back in June 2012. Sepp Blatter, the president of FIFA who in the past championed hard for Qatar, admitted that choosing the country was probably a “mistake.” Even the Nepalese Ambassador to Qatar Maya Kumari Sharma has referred to the situation as an “open jail for migrant workers.” Although the shady recruitment brokers that allow these men to work in Qatar without any regard for their safety should also take some of the blame.

Although the World Cup is still nine years away, the Qatar 2022 Supreme Committee still doesn’t seem very proactive in solving the problem; and hard labor still seems to be the norm in Qatar. However, with international pressure increasing, the Qatari government may have no choice but to look into this matter deeply. What do you think should be done? Should the World Cup venue be changed?

Occupy Wall Street

Occupy Wall Street Meets Kol Nidre

Last Friday the Pursue office was rather quiet. Several staffers worked from home or were out traveling to spend Yom Kippur with family. We didn’t turn on the overhead lights while we worked, and instead worked by natural light coming through the windows of our office. As the time drew near the end of our short work day, updates and posts continued to pop up over Facebook about Kol Nidre Service at Occupy Wall Street. As the sun descended, a reported 500-700 Jews gathered in front of the Brown Brothers Harriman building for a candlelit, social justice focused Kol Nidre services in New York City. Since Friday evening articles, posts, and videos have been published.

Boston, one of the cities that have joined the Occupy Movement, also held Kol Nidre service on Friday evening. Jocelyn Berger, former Bay Area Program Officer for Pursue, wrote her reflections on Yom Kippur, social justice, and Occupy Boston:

“What do Yom Kippur and the Occupy Wall Street movement have in common? Both are about imagination. On Yom Kippur we imagine that a better self is possible. At Occupy Boston, we imagine that a better country, a better world, is possible. And although these are individual imaginings, we come together in community to make them collectively realized. By moving Yom Kippur from a sequestered, individualized experience in a synagogue out into the public square (literally!), we transform the purpose of the holiday from simply imagining a better self to imagining an whole better world.

Undeniably, one of the most exciting things about this movement is how democratic and collective it is. This rang especially true as we recited the Sh’ma together at our Kol Nidre service, proclaiming oneness – of our voices, of our values, of our aspirations, of Hashem, all one and the same, unified. My emotional climax occurred during the Al Chet – we invited folks to call out sins, personal, political, economic, social, all repeated through “the people’s mic,” adding even greater resonance: “Racism. Turning our backs on the old. Turning our backs on the young. Climate change. Defunding women’s health programs. Putting profits before people (aka capitalism). Citizen’s United. Private health care. Eroding the social safety net. Blaming victims. Katrina. Sexism. Homophobia. Anti-Semitism. Islamophobia. High interest rates. Student loans. Unemployment. Not taking responsibility sooner. Not speaking out sooner. Not showing up sooner.”

Let’s Have a Jubilee: the Torah’s Fix for Modern-Day Slavery

On a hot and sticky New York afternoon, an East Village parking space was home to a traveling museum–located inside a 20-foot truck. Even with fans running, it was uncomfortably hot in the truck yesterday, which only helped the exhibit to make its point. The truck is a model of the vehicle that was used to hold Florida tomato harvesters at night in a case of modern-day slavery. Photographs of wrists bruised by shackles are among the sparse display of hard-hitting images and text. The few artifacts include a bloody shirt retrieved from a worker who fled the fields after being violently beaten.

The successful prosecution of two brothers–labor contractors–who held workers in the truck nightly against their will is just one of five recent cases highlighted in the Florida Modern-Day Slavery Museum, a project developed by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) that is currently touring the Northeastern United States. Based in Florida’s rural tomato and citrus growing area with headquarters in the sleep town of Immokalee, the CIW and partners including Interfaith Action of Southwest Florida and Student Farmworker Alliance advocate for improvements in farmworker conditions, and developed the museum in a truck as a tool “to raise awareness and bring attention to the solution,” according to exhibit guide Brigitte Gynther of Immokalee’s Interfaith Action.

Through its Campaign for Fair Food, the CIW has gained recognition for its penny-per-pound campaigns to encourage major retailers, including Burger King and McDonald’s, to pay additional wages directly to piece-rate earning harvesters. The solution to modern-day slavery cases in farming, and to ending “the abuse and poverty in general” that allows such conditions, is to demand improved wages, and a zero-tolerance policy for forced labor through well-monitored codes of conduct, says Gynther. “Poverty and powerlessness are really at the roots of the slavery cases.” The instances of slavery highlighted at the museum were all perpetrated by labor contractors: debt bondage, violence toward workers, theft of legally obtained visas from migrant crew members, and the luring of prospective workers from homeless shelters. The common trope is one of worker intimidation. And as CIW tour guide Romeo Ramirez, a 29-year-old Guatemalan immigrant who has worked in farming all his life, explained, it is difficult to know when and where to seek assistance. He found his way to the CIW in 1998 after unexplained pay docks for his harvest work.

The treatment of farmworkers did not escape the Torah’s many dicta on agriculture, a series of laws and observations that are becoming an increasingly significant part of the intellectual discourse on sustainable, fair food. In a 2006 American Jewish World Service Torah commentary on a parshat that examines agricultural workers, Rabbi David Rosenn, the founder of AVODAH and the current COO of the New Israel Fund, looked at the significance of the Jubilee year, “one of the Torah’s most revolutionary ideas.” Every 50th year, debts are forgiven and land is redistributed to original owners, ensuring that even the unfortunate individuals whose unproductive farms forced them away from their own property into a migrant pattern of working on other farms–leaving them without reliable work, income, or property assets–would not permanently become a class in servitude.

Interfaith Action’s Gynther says that the problems agricultural workers face are about more than wages, immigration, or piece-rate pay mechanisms. It’s about “the real power in the agriculture industry,” and consolidation among major growers and retailers whose “demand for artificially cheap tomatoes” has a direct impact on labor costs. The power imbalance between the poorest migrant harvesters and the fast food executives is precisely the type of inequality that the Jubilee year is designed to correct. As Steven Stoll mused in Harper’s Magazine recently, the Jubilee year “constitutes nothing less than the first land-reform measure. The upshot was a legal mechanism for preventing class differences.”

One visitor to the Florida Modern-Day Slavery Museum, Orlanda Brugnola, an adjunct assistant professor of philosophy at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a Unitarian Universalist minister, was offering extra credit to students who took part in fair food efforts. She found the museum to be a provocative, though unsurprising, portrayal of greed and the corresponding systematic devaluation of labor. “If you look at the workplace and the world, whether farms or other businesses, workers are usually treated as objects of use. To me, that’s not an acceptable way of treating any human being.” Having just returned from protests in Arizona against the state’s new immigration law, Brugnola expounded to say that “the greatness of the nation can be judged by how it treats all the people within its borders.”

The museum’s mission is to serve as an educational tool and call to action for participation in its campaign to restructure the power imbalance–a campaign that seeks, in many ways, to function as the “modern-day equivalent of the Jubilee year: a way to prevent dispossession and destitution from becoming the inheritance of families and countries over generations,” as Rabbi Rosenn writes. For Ramirez, who was visiting New York for the third time, the museum was helping to make progress. Visitors, including two couples from South Florida, were positive and hopeful, he said. Modern-day slavery exists, but with a modern-day adaptation of the Jubilee year, perhaps the structural obstacles toward eliminating inequity can be eliminated.

Breath and Pursue How Jewish Meditation Supports Social Action

On Monday, July 25th, Pursuers gathered at the Sixth Street Community Center in Manhattan for Chewing on Food Justice: Got Access, the second installment of the New York series on food justice. The space was a synagogue turned hip community center, a creaky, colorful old building whose walls were equally marked by old Hebrew and Aramaic letters and vibrant murals of figures like Emma Goldman and Zora Neale Hurston. It was a fitting context in which to wrestle with the intersection of Judaism and justice and to awaken our inner rabble-rousers.

The evening featured four change-makers doing wildly different work on food justice issues both locally and globally. Melissa Extein, the Associate Director of Grants at American Jewish World Service, began the night by getting us on our feet with an exercise on power. She symbolized power and stood in the middle of the room, challenging us to choose a spot that signified our relationships to her. The reflections that followed were insightful; we collectively explored our feelings about power, influence, and control. Does power mean dominance and coercion? Are we skeptical of power or drawn to it? How much power does each of us, with our unique positionalities, actually have?

Melissa brought an international lens to food justice, discussing the blunders of Food Aid, and how what looks like a basic charity program actually seriously undermines the livelihoods of local farmers in the Global South. Using Haiti as an example, she complicated the simple idea of dumping loads of free rice, and shared what Haitian farmers are saying about their inability to compete with free foreign produce. In exploring food sovereignty and discussing what gets in the way, we got inspired to advocate for concrete changes in the Food Aid program in the Farm Bill of 2012.

Up next was Mara Gittleman, the director of Farming Concrete, a research project that aims to measure how much food is grown in New York City’s community gardens. She certainly brought it close to home, taking us on a tour through New York City’s history with community-based agriculture, the mass abandonment that came with the fires of the 1970’s, and how finally, these no-man’s lands naturally morphed into a sort of “communal backyard,” areas for voter registration, community gatherings, and of course, gardening. Her presentation shed light on how data can be leveraged as an advocacy tool, and illuminated just how gigantic the yields of the humble raised beds scattered all around the city are all put together. She told us of Puerto Ricans in the Bronx growing sugar cane and Brooklyn gardens sprouting callaloo, fearless planters producing kiwi, gooseberries, and pigeon peas, and the hefty bounty that results from all this hard work (I’m still trying to get my head around the 29,628 lbs of tomatoes produced in 2010!).

Next, Steven Deheeger of the South Bronx CSA connected the dots between all of this community-based food production and issues of access. Calling 10 volunteers up to the front, he illustrated how, despite having some of the highest rates of diabetes, childhood obesity, and other serious health conditions related to malnutrition, the South Bronx continues to lack the healthy food options found in other parts of New York City, rendering it a “food desert.” There are 12 (low-quality) grocery stores in the South Bronx for 88,000 people, compared to 35 on the Upper West Side for just 60,000. So what would food sovereignty mean for the South Bronx, Steven asked? Not being forced to use assistance income on junk food at bodegas. Not needing to rely on private, for-profit supermarkets to fill the gap. More fundamentally, food sovereignty means that healthy food should be a right instead of a privilege for a few wealthy citizens of New York.

Reverend Robert Jackson, the director of Brooklyn Rescue Mission, stepped in to add a race and class analysis to the concept of food sovereignty, to combine what he called a “foodie movement” with the civil rights movement.  “The reality of poverty is not a theory; it’s not in a book. Food is access. You have to connect the dots between food, equality, and access,” he said. As a farmer, reverend, and community leader, he seeks to bring fresh food to low-income areas of Brooklyn, and supplies the food pantry program with produce straight from his Bed-Stuy farm. He spun the story of Joseph that we had looked at in our text study, advocating for all people to have the power to make decisions about their food, regardless of their income level. The late civil rights leader Bayard Rustin famously said, “We need, in every community, a group of angelic troublemakers.” Perhaps that was Reverend Jackson’s point when he urged Pursuers to wrestle with food justice, confront their privilege and choices, and gather up some chutzpah. “I want you guys to leave here bigger troublemakers than you came,” he said, smiling mischievously.  And judging from the spirit in the room, I think everyone did.