By Sheila Decter
Executive Director, Jewish Alliance for Law and Social Action

Fresh fruits and vegetables for all is a relatively recent call for political action. When First Lady Michelle Obama got behind the nascent farmers’ market movement by planting a White House produce garden, she also spoke out for sound nutrition and sustainable agriculture. In Mrs. Obama’s “Let’s Move!” campaign, she raises awareness about childhood obesity and the problems for low income people getting access to healthy provisions.

The recent growing interest in access to healthy food reflects an Jewish tradition that is in fact ancient. The Old Testament bestows ancient guidance: “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest… but you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger; I the Eternal am your God.” (Leviticus 19:9-20). In this passage the Torah goes beyond commanding us to feed the poor, it commands us to share the very same food we raise for ourselves. Yet, too often, struggling families are asked to make do with processed foods full of calories and lacking in nutrients while more expensive healthy fresh food is confined to high end grocery stores end expensive, though more sustainable, farmers markets.

The Jewish people have a long tradition of advocating for health for all people, and the Jewish Alliance for Law and Social Action (JALSA) believes that Jews need to treat access to fresh, healthy food as an issue of preventative healthcare. Our interest springs from our mission of social and economic justice. “Poor people’s access to fresh healthy food is a basic concern,” says Rick Reibstein, co-chair of JALSA’s Environmental Task Force.

Reibstein invited Gus Schumacher, former Agricultural Commissioner for Massachusetts, to speak at JALSA. Schumacher, who has also been an official with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), is the chief policy maker for Wholesome Wave, an organization that puts together partner-based programs to support access to healthy foods. Wholesome Wave helps open up farmers’ markets to low income consumers by offering cash incentives for those with SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits/food stamps.  

Schumacher also talked about the “Prescription Vegetables” and “Veggies Rx” programs, in which clients at community health clinics receive vouchers of $1 a day to buy fresh produce. After one year of a $5,000 pilot prescription vegetables program, the resulting drops in weight and blood pressure readings have been so promising the project won a of $600,000 from Kaiser Pemanente to expand this program in four new states.

This spring, JALSA is launching a campaign to bring together stakeholders from across the Jewish community to learn more about the growing healthy food programs in our area and how to support this critical and exciting work.   Doctors who can testify to the need for more preventative healthcare, affected families who are interested in getting more access to healthy food, environmental justice leaders who are interested promoting sustainable agriculture are all welcome at the table. Together, we can push policy makers and healthcare funders to understand the important role that access to fresh food has in building a healthier, more sustainable and more just society. JALSA urges all with energy and perspective to call JALSA and participate in this effort.  (Call the JALSA office at 617-227-3000 to find out how to get involved.)

Sheila Decter is the executive director of the Jewish Alliance for Law and Social Action (JALSA), now celebrating its 10th Anniversary.

JALSA believes that access to fresh, healthy food is an issue of preventative healthcare, and that the Jewish community may especially be able to help focus attention on this link.