Friday, September 23, 2016

Earth Etude for Elul 21: The Food We Eat

by Leora Mallach

The severe drought affecting the northeast this growing season is causing farmers to apply for federal disaster relief (they must prove at least 30% crop loss to qualify). According to USDA data, Massachusetts topsoils were 25% drier in July 2016 than the 10 year mean, and there are mandatory water restrictions in many towns.


The National Drought Mitigation Center (NDMC), established at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 1995, tells us:

Drought is an insidious hazard of nature. It is often referred to as a "creeping phenomenon" and its impacts vary from region to region. In the most general sense, drought originates from a deficiency of precipitation over an extended period of time--usually a season or more--resulting in a water shortage for some activity, group, or environmental sector. Its impacts result from the interplay between the natural event (less precipitation than expected) and the demand people place on water supply, and human activities can exacerbate the impacts of drought. Because drought cannot be viewed solely as a physical phenomenon, it is usually defined both conceptually and operationally.

The interplay between natural events and demands of people is heightened in times of scarcity and stress. It is easy to buy and support local when it’s convenient or cost effective, but we must acknowledge the impact of our actions and maintain such principles even when times are tough and dry.

Our local sustainable agriculture farms are supported by diversification of their revenue stream, and many rely on a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) model. In this, shareholders buy into the farm at the beginning of the season, providing off-season revenue and a market regardless of crop variety, size, or quantity. They are in relationship with the farm and assume the risk of a tough growing season, such as the one we have had this year. For those shareholders in eastern MA, or most of the Northeast US, that has meant smaller produce, smaller shares of vegetables or weeks with none.

As Jews, much of our religious practice is rooted in the rhythm of the seasons and agricultural practices. Many of our holiday celebrations are based on them. From Sukkot to Passover, as the grains are developing in the semi-arid grasslands of our biblical heritage, we insert daily prayers for rain into our practice. We recognize our reliance on rain water, and on the forces of nature to nourish our crops and our community. There is language to describe the early rain (Yoreh), heavy rains (Geshem), and later season rains (Malkosh). We have a heritage rich with reverence for cause and effect that recognizes the interplay between human activities and natural cycles.

At each meal we have the opportunity to make choices that affect the community around us. May we make food choices that support our local community- the workers and the infrastructure, such that it may nourish us for many years to come.  

Leora Mallach is the co-founder and director of Ganei Beantown: Beantown Jewish Gardens, building community through experiential food and agriculture education rooted in Jewish text, tradition and culture in the greater Boston area.


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