The Interfaith Sustainable Food Collaborative (ISFC) is a nonprofit organization working in California’s Sonoma and Marin Counties.1 It gathers clergy and lay-people for monthly roundtable discussions about food and faith. In June 2014, members of Lutheran, Quaker, Congregational, Methodist, Seventh Day Adventist, Episcopal, and Catholic congregations met at the First United Methodist Church in Santa Rosa, California to learn how their congregations could buy food directly from farmers through the use of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), otherwise known as ‘food stamps.’
Although Sonoma County is famous for vineyards and wineries and has many wealthy residents, 12 percent of the population still lives below the poverty level. Discussions at the IFSC’s June roundtable included how to reduce the shame or fear that prevents individuals from applying for SNAP (70 percent of those eligible for SNAP don’t apply). They also brainstormed creative ways to use Congregation Supported Agriculture programs—a variation on Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs) in which the ‘community’ is a religious congregation—to help those in need, such as asking members to pay a small fee per box to subsidize a low-income member’s box or to support a food pantry.
According to the Organic Industry Survey conducted by the Organic Trade Association in 2014, organic food sales in the United States market grew over 11 percent in 2013, while conventional food sales grew only 3 percent. Despite its impressive growth, organic food still makes up less than 5 percent of total food sales in the United States. The largest organic food sector is fruits and vegetables, which represent more than 10 percent of all fruits and vegetables sold in America and approximately 46 percent of organic food sales. Most of the people who currently purchase organic food are motivated by health and environmental reasons. In order for the sustainable food movement to grow, it needs to reach out to many more people, including those who may be more likely to be motivated by religious beliefs or moral values than environmental or health concerns. In a 2013 Gallup poll, 78 percent of those surveyed identified religion as either very important (56 percent) or fairly important (22 percent) to them.2 With this in mind, the ISFC is trying to convert these large populations of people to organic foods by joining forces with religious leaders. “Hearing about sustainable agriculture from a pastor or rabbi who believes that being a good Jew or Christian includes taking care of God’s creation can help grow support for sustainable food,” says Steve Schwartz, Founding Executive Director of the ISFC.
Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, and Judaism all share the belief that humans should care for the Earth. Sara Tashker, Director of the San Francisco Zen Center’s Green Gulch Farm and a member of ISFC’s Advisory Board, views support for sustainable agriculture as a natural extension of environmental stewardship. “All faith traditions relate to food production and the holiness of food.” For example, Islam requires food to be both ‘halal’ and ‘tayyaba’—halal referring to the preparation and prohibition of certain foods and tayyaba meaning wholesome. “To be tayyaba, food must be organic and natural. The whole process has to be pure including the seeds (no GMOs) and soil. It’s part of the commandment but the concept is lost on many Muslims. I have introduced sermons to bring it back into focus, make people more aware and motivated,” explains Imam Ali Siddiqui of the Islamic Center of North Marin in Novato and also a member of the ISFC’s advisory board.
Tashker views congregations as ideal environments for discussing values and transforming attitudes and habits: “People go to church or temple to be better people and open to change. It seems like a ripe moment to talk to people about their behavior regarding agriculture.” Since congregations are established communities where members are already participating in activities together, people can support and encourage each other on a regular basis. When Sunday Mass includes fair trade coffee hour with organic treats, picking up a CSA box of vegetables and fruits, and swapping relevant recipes, it’s hard to ignore that environmental stewardship can easily be an essential and practiced tenant of one’s faith. With food served at religious events (weddings, funerals, bar mitzvahs, etc.) and celebrations (Passover, Ramadan, Christmas, etc.), congregations have many occasions throughout the year to reinforce the message. Promoting sustainable food also adds an ecofriendly dimension to an established mission of most religious groups: feeding the hungry. “Social justice is an important piece of many congregations’ work. They already have food pantries but want to move beyond canned food drives and support local farmers,” says Schwartz.
However, many clergy and worshippers are overwhelmed by busy schedules and commitments, and may lack the time, knowledge, or money to act on their beliefs about environmental stewardship. To make it easier, the ISFC is identifying models and best practices that congregations can replicate and is also providing information, technical assistance, and expertise in the field of healthy, sustainable food choices. “We figure out who is doing the best job and share it with the congregations so that nobody has to reinvent the wheel,” says Schwartz.
The ISFC surveyed farmers in Sonoma and Marin Counties and identified 33 percent of them as very interested in working with religious communities. Based on this, they created a list of the interested farms, a template CSA agreement to distribute to congregations, and a fact sheet which lays out steps that faith groups can follow to host a SNAP enrollment event. The process is already bringing about successful collaborations. For example, the Islamic Center of North Marin started a CSA with First Light Farm in Petaluma. “A farmer brought a sample box to the mosque and made a presentation. Signing up was simple and the price was economical. It’s convenient for working people, who can’t get to a farmers’ market during the day, to pick up their boxes at the mosque,” says Siddiqui.
ISFC’s “Food and Faith Project Menu” lists practical solutions to the issue of healthy food provision, such as adopting congregational policies to serve fair trade and organic products at events;3 becoming members of a CSA with a temple, synagogue, church or mosque as the drop-off site; creating community gardens or farms on congregation property; hosting an on-site farm stand; visiting local farms as part of a holiday celebration, religious school, or camp; or sponsoring gleaning activities where congregations can gather unharvested produce from fields or orchards that farmers have decided not to sell.
The organization also awards mini-grants of $500 to $800 that are funded by the California Department of Food and Agriculture to help congregations overcome a stumbling block for many—money. In addition to all of these actions and the monthly roundtables, the ISFC also holds annual conferences such as “Faith, Family Farms, and Food Access” (2014) and “Feeding Our Souls, Our Soil, and Our Communities” (2013) where churches, synagogues, temples, and mosques can establish relationships and mobilize to strengthen the food and faith movement.
ISFC’s work is bringing new beliefs as well as customers to the sustainable farming community by connecting farmers with faith-based groups. Many of the organic farmers in Marin and Sonoma counties, who tend to be younger (in their 20s and 30s) and not members of a religious community, have become interested in learning more about religion as a result of growing food for churches, synagogues, and temples. Since members of the counties’ religious communities tend to be older, ISFC is also creating opportunities for different generations to share ideas and gain insight into the challenges faced both by young and old people regarding healthy food.
In addition to encouraging individual congregations to promote and support sustainable agriculture, ISFC is also bringing congregations together to share ideas and work collectively to improve America’s dysfunctional food system. Imam Ali Siddiqui feels strongly that it’s not enough for different religious groups to work independently on these issues, “Different faiths have to come together, work as a community, and create synergy. We need to create critical mass to have a greater impact.”
Small steps by individual religious communities can make a big impact if enough congregations are involved. The ISFC was established in 2013 and has already worked on projects with 21 congregations and attracted interest from many more. Over 90 congregations have attended the ISFC’s roundtables, conferences, and other events.
ISFC is just beginning its work and plans to focus more on influencing agricultural policy in the future. With more than twenty years of experience working on sustainable agricultural and food policy, Schwartz thinks food activists can gain political clout by partnering with religious organizations. “There are only ten professionals on Capitol Hill [the staff of National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition and Organic Trade Association] who are working to promote sustainable agriculture. More than twenty times that number work for national religious bodies.” The Presbyterian Hunger Program,4 the Union for Reform Judaism,5 and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops are three religious organizations already working to reform the nation’s food system.6 This kind of collaborative effort between groups that may not traditionally have worked together is crucial to building the momentum necessary to make profound changes to the food system.
Schwartz looks to history for inspiration, “The Civil Rights movement happened because progressive faith leaders were out front working for change. For the sustainable agriculture movement to grow, we have to build on the part of society working with faith communities.”
Although there are many economic, environmental, and other issues that impact agriculture, ultimately, decisions about our food system depend upon core values and how much importance is placed on protecting the health of our planet, ecosystems, rural communities, and citizens. The United States of America is a wealthy country and has abundant resources that can support and promote sustainable agriculture once it commits to making the long-term health of the planet and its living organisms a top priority over profit.
The Interfaith Sustainable Food Collaborative is growing the sustainable food movement by appealing to those who may be motivated to purchase organic food because of their religious and spiritual values. The group works with churches, synagogues, and temples, which are established communities where people share similar beliefs, meet on a regular basis, and practice strong traditions—all positive factors in supporting long-term change. Members of congregations can support and encourage each other to adopt sustainable food choices, both in their congregations’ activities as well as in their individual lives. In addition to working with established communities, ISFC is creating a new interfaith community that plans to work with more powerful organizations on Capitol Hill to influence agricultural and food policy. If all religious communities in every county across America became involved in the sustainable food movement, it would create a novel and powerful force for positive change.