Erica Bloom on Tu B’Shevat: “Bend a little closer to the earth”

On Saturday February 11, Erica Bloom, Project Director at Growing Hope, gave this talk during our morning Shabbat service.

Hello everyone. Thank you for having me today. This is a rare opportunity for me to wear two of my hats at once. I’ve been asked to speak today to reflect on Tu B’shevat as the Program Director at Growing Hope, but also as a Jewish person who cares deeply about the natural world and access to healthy food as a human right.

Growing Hope is an organization whose mission is to help people improve their lives and communities through gardening and increasing access to healthy food. We work at the intersections of urban farming, youth empowerment, public health, and small food business development all with the goal of creating a healthier Ypsilanti. In this vision, people of all backgrounds can grow their own food, purchase affordable fresh fruits and vegetables, and support themselves through employment in the local food system.

I’ve been with the organization for over two years, and in that time I’ve witnessed the challenges and opportunities that come with achieving Growing Hope’s vision. In Washtenaw county, there remain individuals and whole neighborhoods with daily barriers to accessing healthy food. Zip codes can be a determinant of health, which is to say that diet related diseases in our county are concentrated in areas of greater poverty. Decreasing food insecurity is an extraordinary challenge, and while Growing Hope isn’t the only agency working on these issues, we have been an active community partner for over a decade to find creative solutions throughout Ypsilanti and the surrounding area. And our community is creative with initiatives like neighborhood gardens, cooperative fruit orchards, food distribution at places of worship, and mobile farm stands, everyone has a role to play in becoming a more food secure city.

But before I get too far into Growing Hope’s work, I want to begin with my own food story. This is to suggest that we all have a personal food history, and I believe these stories connects us to each other, to food itself, and this holiday Tu B’shevat.  When I say my food story, what I’m really talking about is my connection to other people and my sense of place. With this in mind, my food story begins on Sunday evenings at my grandparent’s dining room table in their home first in Southfield and then in Farmington Hills. There, I am surrounded by my family and we are eating birthday cake, or Chinese take-out, or Buddy’s pizza. We also ate salads from time to time. And on the holidays we eat matzoh ball soup, charoset, latkes, gefilte fish, kugel, or macaroons. Though eating any meal together was a treat, it was these traditional Jewish foods that not only connected my family to each other, but placed us within a long history of other Jewish families preparing and eating similar meals.

I open it up to you all: Think about your family meals. What are some of your favorite recipes? Please, shout them out.

My next question: Think about your own personal food story, where would it begin? Please, name a place that is part of your food story. (a family member’s home, a deli, a bakery, a certain kitchen…)

Now, these stories connect us to one another. And I bet, if we dig a little deeper it can connect you to places you’ve never been, and people you’ve never met.

Tu B’shevat, in all honesty, wasn’t a holiday I grew up knowing much about. I knew what probably a lot of Jews know, that we donate a tree to be planted in Israel. The holiday, commonly referred to as Jewish Arbor Day, or the new year for the trees. Through the Jewish National Fund over 240 million trees have been planted in Israel. Though this is noble and has contributed to what the National Fund calls “green lungs” around congested Israeli cities and towns, I would argue that if this is all you’ve done to celebrate Tu B’shevat, you are missing out on what this holiday can really represent.

I am grateful to have been given the opportunity to speak today, because it pushed me to understand this holiday better. And what I found are themes that are integral in my work at Growing Hope and in my personal life, those being an understanding of the cycles of the natural world, and how being rooted in a place can connect people to the land and each other.

The holiday in one sense is practical. It is to mark the time the trees are just starting to bud, and an indication that spring is coming. We eat fruits with pits like dates, cherries, plums and apricots to recall the symbol of rebirth in a seed. Our Jewish ancestors calculated the new year for the trees to track when fruit was ready to eat. And they tracked the weather, they knew when to plant, when to harvest, when to feast and when to fast. Because when you’re relying on the food you grow to feed your family knowing the cycles of the natural world can make the difference between being food secure and food insecure.

Of course, this way of life is more uncommon now and so Tu B’shevat is an opportunity to remember our connection to the land, and question where our food originates from. Each ingredient in our traditional family meal has its own story of how it arrived on our table. At some point, someone planted a seed, weeded and harvested a tomato, someone cleaned it, maybe processed it, someone packaged it, drove it perhaps across many states, delivered it to your grocer, and you found it, eyed it’s shape and color, took it home and cooked it (or ate it raw). Because once we start telling and remembering our own personal food stories, we find the story to be much greater than just ourselves. We become connected to a place, maybe far away, or maybe our own backyards, but always a specific tree, plant or animal, on land or in the sea. And those that labored to bring us our food, they become part of our food story too. For some of us this connection is spiritual, and reminds us that God or a divine being created all of this. It is with this framework that our Jewish faith and annual celebration of Tu B’shevat challenges us to bend a little closer to the Earth, to not only take gratitude for the person who prepared the food on our plate, but gratitude in the long (or short) journey that the food took to arrive on our plate.

At Growing Hope this is most often where we start the conversation–with people’s food stories. What food do you like to eat, we ask. Or, what do you remember eating with your family growing up? The question is never, do you want to eat healthy. Because every person regardless of race, gender, age, and income level wants a healthy life, and wants and deserves good food to eat. Everyone has an answer to their favorite food and usually a fond memory of eating a meal with their family.

But, not everyone can say they have access to healthy food.  And access is at the crux of Growing Hope’s mission.  It might mean making healthy food more affordable to someone using their EBT card at a farmers market, it might mean working to provide more public transportation options to a Kroger, it might mean partnering with a storeowner to supply and display more apples and oranges in their party store, it might mean installing a raised bed garden in
someone’s backyard so they can grow their own food, or it might mean teaching someone the skills to prepare and cook seasonal fruits and vegetables. All of these things are what we do at Growing Hope to address issues of food insecurity.

To me, Tu B’shevat is a holiday not just of environmental stewardship, but of ecological and social justice. Being a good steward to the land and ensuring everyone has enough good food to eat go hand in hand. To quote Barbara Kingsolver from her essay Small Wonder, “the oxygen in our lungs was recently inside a leaf.” This is a remarkable thought. A reminder of how connected we are to the trees that soon will bear fruit, and even how connected we are to the people who will pick that fruit for us to eat, and our neighbors in our own county who deserve to enjoy that fruit just as much as we do.

This Tu B’shevat I challenge all of us to be more mindful eaters. To not only take time with our families and friends that share in our meals, but to bring to the table a critical and curious mind about the story of our meal. To reflect on the journey each ingredient has taken, and how this shapes our own personal food stories. Once we start making these connections we will inevitable discover inequities and disparities both far away and in our own corner of the world. But we will also discover communities taking action to reconnect themselves with their food so that everyone has greater access.

Today is February 11th. Though the sky is grey and it most certainty still feels like winter, spring is tiptoeing closer. Those bony branches are starting to form small buds. So, when you return outside take a closer look at one of those branches, and remember today as the new year for that tree.  Consider what a new year means for you, and what might your food story look like this year. With that I leave you with two questions: In what ways can your food story become more connected to the land and other people? And how might you contribute to a more just and equitable food system from our own county to around the world?

Thank you for inviting me to speak today, it’s truly a pleasure be here celebrating Tu B’shevat with all of you. For those interested in learning more about Growing Hope, please see me afterward. There are plenty of ways to get involved.