There are numerous mandates in Jewish law for living in an agricultural society.
A farmer has the responsibility to leave the corners of his land unplowed so that the needy can harvest food.
If a farmer drops something, or forgets to gather a row of crops, it must be left for those who are hungry.
While the city of Pittsburgh may not be an agricultural society, many of its residents struggle to obtain healthy foods.
“In our society today, where people are not engaged in agriculture as their lifestyle, I believe that we have obligations to figure out new solutions that allow us to live out those core principles in a 21st-century model,” said Rabbi Ron Symons, director of the Tikkun Olam Center for Jewish Social Justice at Temple Sinai.
Symons is a member of the Pittsburgh Jewish Social Justice Roundtable, a collaboration of congregations, direct service providers, advocacy groups and foundations in the Pittsburgh region that work collaboratively to advance their shared vision of tikkun olam at the state and national levels.
The Roundtable recently joined forces with Just Harvest, an organization that educates, empowers and mobilizes people to eliminate hunger, poverty and economic injustice in communities by influencing public policy, engaging in advocacy and connecting people to public benefits.
Ivan Frank, a member of the Roundtable, and a former board member of Just Harvest, helped to connect the groups in the fight against Pittsburgh’s “food deserts” — areas without easy access to healthy and fresh foods.
“I had contacted Just Harvest because I wanted to know what the [real] issues were,” Frank said.
Frank learned that Zachary Murray, an Emerson Hunger Fellow, was compiling a report on food deserts in the city for Just Harvest.
The report, titled “A Menu for Food Justice,” was presented to the public at a community forum last Friday. It profiles neighborhoods including Clairton, Millvale, McKees Rocks and Stowe Township, neighborhoods in Pittsburgh’s East End, neighborhoods in Pittsburgh’s North Side and neighborhoods in Pittsburgh’s South Side Hilltop.
The report says that approximately 47 percent of Pittsburgh residents live in food deserts, according to a 2012 report prepared for the U.S. Department of the Treasury. Residents of these communities often travel more than a mile to access healthy foods that are commonly available at grocery stores and supermarkets. In cities with a population of 250,000 to 500,000, Pittsburgh has the largest number of residents living in these low-access regions.
The report also provides four policies to help food deserts, including healthy corner stores, mobile markets, seasonal solutions (such as farmers’ markets and farm stands) and full-scale grocery store development.
Frank and others from the Roundtable helped coordinate the forum, which gave local political and business leaders a chance to meet and discuss the issue.
“It’s a very interesting format for a discussion,” said Andi Fischhoff, a member of the Roundtable. “There are a lot of very engaged people in this room representing lots of different sectors, and I’m hoping that the follow-up here will create a network of folks in different neighborhoods who can continue to meet together and provide support to one another in terms of social entrepreneurship in the food scarcity arena.”
Symons, who also attended the forum, witnessed firsthand the action taking place as a result of the open discussions.
“Just in our circle today there was a financial deal struck,” said Symons. “A matching grant from one of the investors [who said] ‘I’ll match you if you actually do this project now.’”
The Jewish Social Justice Roundtable is a “critical piece of the puzzle” in examining food deserts and was “instrumental” in organizing Friday’s event, according to Ken Regal, executive director of Just Harvest.
“For all of us in our professional lives and in our lives as Jews,” Regal added, “we should be thinking about how we can produce a community that’s got more food justice instead of less.”
(Andrew Goldstein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)