what's your grocery story?
Concepts of tikkun olam and tzedakah are instilled in Jewish children from an early age. They learn to put a coin in the pushke, to say prayers before and after eating, to share mishloach manot (gifts for friends) on Purim, and on Passover to invite Elijah—and anyone who is hungry—so that they may join and eat.
The indignity of having to ask for charity can be amended through community action; this is not a condemnation of soup kitchens or food pantries, but rather a call for a new model. Religious tradition steeped in charity can shift to a sustainable food justice model, but it is essential that any changes towards sustainability be identified and shaped by those who lack direct transportation to grocery stores, only have highly-priced, low-quality foods available, and have an interest in eating more healthfully.
Re/Storing Nashville is dedicated to attracting grocery stores to Nashville’s food desert neighborhoods through community organizing and outreach to faith-based communities. The campaign arose from increasing rates of diet-related diseases in Nashville’s food deserts and from a demand for fresh food. Initial funding for Re/Storing Nashville was provided by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
Nashville, the proverbial buckle of the Bible Belt, is home to 1000+ churches, four mosques, five synagogues, and large Buddhist, Baha’i, and Hindu communities. Strong religious ties, dedicated worshippers, and respected clergy point toward the palpable power of the “church,” which is the center of many Nashvillians’ social and spiritual lives. Understanding this dynamic, an Interfaith Worship Toolkit was developed by the Re/Storing Nashville Interfaith Planning Council—a diverse group of clergy members and lay leaders. The toolkit was created to help educate and activate congregations about food desert life and transition from pure charity to food justice.
Over the past two years, Re/Storing Nashville staff and Leadership Team (residents of Nashville’s food deserts) have worked to reenergize grocery campaigns in North, South, and East Nashville. These areas underwent urban renewal projects in the 1950s-1970s which aimed to clean up blighted neighborhoods and build low-income housing. In the Southern Nashville neighborhood Edgehill, this meant that many single-family homes were replaced with multi-unit complexes, changing the dynamic of the historically middle-class, African-American neighborhood.
With the later conversion of homes into Music Row—recording studios and other music industry businesses—Edgehill became segregated from other parts of the city, most immediately from the majority-white universities
surrounding the neighborhood. Prior to urban renewal, Edgehill had 15 grocery stores; now, the only food stores within three miles or more are convenience stores. Edgehill residents have been working for decades to attract and retain supermarkets to the area.
“I’d rather have a banana than the chips,” pronounced Debbie Smith, Edgehill Resident Association Treasurer and Re/Storing Nashville Leadership Team member, in a conversation about the neighborhood store two blocks from her home—which does not sell bananas, or any other fresh produce. Shelves are lined with pre-packaged foods from a discount grocery chain across town and the rest of the store is full of hair products, clothing, and a pizza counter. The owner will not carry fresh produce because “people will not buy it,” though Edgehill residents say otherwise.
In Nashville’s food deserts, affordability and quality are priorities; the best you can get is a shriveled, overpriced peach, a box of green fish sticks, and rancid meat that’s labeled: “Meat Dept.” One is lucky if charged the same price at the register that is labeled on the shelf, if the expiration date on the can of green beans has not passed, and if an EBT card is not mistakenly taxed or double swiped —charging you twice for your food stamp purchase.
A third of Nashville’s food desert residents do not own cars, relying on public transportation, the generosity of family and friends, and more often than not, underground taxi services costing $10-$40 per trip, gas money, or purchases of groceries—usually from the rider’s limited food stamp budget. For a senior on a fixed income averaging $5500 per year, this is an unreasonable expense.
It is part of Jewish tradition to take care of those in need, but our tradition also includes gleaning, or leaving crops in the field for the poor and the traveler. Over the past few years, gleaning projects have taken hold in farmers’ markets across the country, as well as at farms. At the end of the market day, volunteers collect bruised and wilted fruits and vegetables to bring to soup kitchens and feeding programs for processing and distribution. At first glance, this is an incredible gift—utilizing reclaimed food. However, controversy exists over whether there is dignity in eating bruised food, especially when unblemished items are the norm in affluent neighborhoods.
Keeping all of this in mind, the Jewish community has a responsibility to be aware, to make noise, and to get involved. Ride the bus to the grocery store. Find your community garden—or start one! Share recipes for healthy meals on a budget. Educate your policymakers and elected officials about what’s happening in your city. If you have a farm share, work with your farmer to accept food stamps, sliding scale payment, and food desert markets. Ensure that farmers’ markets take food stamps and are easily accessible.
Jewish holidays are all about food—and celebrating not being annihilated one more time. Throw a party on one of our many holidays to raise awareness about food justice work in your community. Plant the seven species for Tu B’shevat and apple trees for Rosh Hashana (or try bee keeping!), help pass urban gardens and chicken ordinances to legalize growing your own food, and change Shabbat oneg to include local, organic food.
It is time to start some new traditions in Jewish food justice.