Over a virtual vegetarian meal Thursday night, community members gathered for YALA Twin Cities’ event “ECO-mmunity: Planting, Buying, and Eating Sustainably,” where local leaders in sustainable food systems discussed land stewardship, eco-kashrut, and the “magic of seeds.”
YALA is the young adult program of the Jewish Federations of Minneapolis and Saint Paul, and the Zoom event was co-sponsored by Moishe House Twin Cities and Mount Zion Temple and hosted by Emma Dunn, manager of YALA Twin Cities.
Ariel Kagan, a resource economist with the Swette Center for Sustainable Food Systems at Arizona State University, began the evening by discussing how we might connect more deeply to our food as urban residents.
“I think COVID has done what many undergraduate intro to sustainable food systems classes weren’t able to do, which is make people really aware that food is not just about planting a seed and then picking something,” she said. “It’s about this whole system that gets food from the farm to your plate.”
That system includes everything from the workers who produce and process food, to how accessible and available that food is for consumers to buy, to public policy, to cultural impact.
Kagan drew on her experiences leading the Emerging Farmers Initiative with the Minnesota Department of Agriculture to speak on equity issues in Minnesota farming. Out of about 110,000 farmers in Minnesota, fewer than 1,000 are nonwhite, and the average age of a farmer in Minnesota is 56.
“The Homestead Act, and the way that a lot of these white farmers did get the land, including my family, is a big part of our culture,” Kagan said. “How do we make sure that that land doesn’t just stay in the hands that it was given to?
“Maybe some of that looks like reclaiming land for our 11 sovereign nations in the state,” she said.
Kagan encouraged attendees to think about parts of food systems they might not typically consider, like soil health and land stewardship. Ecological issues like water filtration, biodiversity, and rural community health should all inform lawmaking, she said.
“How do we make sure that the land we’re cultivating isn’t just a nonrenewable resource?” Kagan asked the group. “How can we improve that with public policy?”
Zachary Paige, the proprietor of North Circle Seeds, an organic vegetable seed company, and the Food Sovereignty Coordinator for the White Earth Band of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe. described his journey from Brooklyn musician to northern Minnesotan grower – a move propelled by a strong desire to reconnect with nature and an interest in sustainable agriculture.
Listen to “Zachary Paige” on Spreaker.
“We’re getting more and more disconnected from the important skills necessary for basic needs and feeding ourselves and our communities,” Paige said. In 2012, he moved to Minnesota to work with renowned activist Winona LaDuke and her White Earth Land Recovery Project. As he learned about the loss of wild foods through processes like farm consolidation and seed privatization, he became invested in seed saving, a process where growers can save seeds from one harvest for repeat use in later years. Patents on seeds can bring legal challenges for farmers who might wish to save them.
Some organizations, like the Open Source Seed Initiative, aim to loosen the hold of large agricultural companies on seed production and sales by encouraging growers to make more seed varieties free to use, share, and save. North Circle Seeds, Paige’s seed company, sells a colorful, OSSI-pledged variety of popcorn called Megnificent.
“It’s up to us how we choose to interact with our ever-changing world,” Paige said. “When it comes to seed saving, what I find to be inspiring is the relationships we form with our seeds. We’re truly codependent on each other.”
Paige described the centuries-long process of cultivating crops as an act of artistic creation.
“The magic is in this idea that we are a part of nature and that through working together in balance, humans have co-created some miraculous living art with Mother Earth,” he said.
Sarah Nathan, a category manager at National Coop Grocers and a recent Twin Cities transplant from Brooklyn, led a discussion on eco-kashrut for the modern-day, inviting attendees to consider how our kosher eating practices can take current ethical and ecological concerns into account.
Nathan referenced 5 considerations, in addition to the processing of kosher meat that we could consider “ethics, health, environment, ecology, and energy efficiency.”
“If you were to change the rules of kashrut today to fall in line with Jewish values but with our more current food society, what would that look like?” she asked the group.
Modern kosher certification groups have already begun to answer that question. Nathan mentioned a modern hechsher, Magen Tzedek, that considers modern Jewish ethics and social justice values in its certification process.
“I think that if we look back and see the caged animals and the big manufacturing plants, would we really consider that healthy? Would we consider that ethical? Would we consider that being good for our ecology?” Nathan asked.
Nathan also spoke about the potential of new technologies to change our understanding of longstanding kosher laws. Lab-grown meat, for example, poses a number of questions.
“Could you technically have a cheeseburger if your meat was grown in a lab?” Nathan asked. For Nathan, these innovations could be a gateway to institutional change in the ways we think about and uphold the laws of kashrut; “I think this brand-new technology is finally getting people to change their mind.”
This article is sponsored content from YALA as part of TC Jewfolk’s Partnership program. For more information, check out our media kit.