Wednesday, August 19, 2009

From Rabbi Jacob Fine in Seattle --

Wasting Food While People Go Hungry


For 1 in 8 Americans, hunger is reality.  According to Feeding America (the nation's leading domestic hunger-relief organization), in 2007, 36.2 million Americans lived in food insecure households, 23.8 million adults and 12.4 million children.  (And these numbers are before the economic downturn!)  


At the same time that so many Americans are going hungry, we are wasting a shocking amount of perfectly fine food.  The USDA estimates 96 billion pounds of food are wasted each year in the United States. Feeding America estimates that if we could recover merely 5% of the food wasted each year, we could help feed 14 million people.   Harvest Against Hunger, a Seattle based hunger relief organization, estimates that Washington State alone wastes 10’s of millions of pounds of food each year.


Our tradition has a remarkably powerful set of teachings around the injunction not to waste food and other useful resources.  The seed of this tradition traces back to two verses in this week’s torah portion, Shofetim.  The parshahreads:

 When you besiege a town for many days, waging-war against it, to seize it: you are not to bring-ruin on its trees, by swinging-away (with) an axe against them, for from them you eat, them you are not to cut-down – for are the trees of the field human beings, (able) to come against you in a siege?  Only those trees of which you know that they are not trees for eating, them you may bring-to-ruin and cut-down, that you may build siege-works against the town that is making war against you, until its downfall.    (Deuteronomy 20:19-20)


This command that the Israelites refrain from destroying the fruit trees of their enemies during war-time becomes the foundation for a comprehensive, and quite radical, set of teachings around the prevention of waste.  For example, Maimonides (1135-1204) teaches that “Not only own who cuts down food trees, but also one who smashes household goods, tears clothes, demolishes buildings, stops up a spring, or destroys food on purpose violates the command: ‘You must not destroy.’

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888) goes even further in teaching that:

The prohibition of purposeless destruction of food trees around a besieged city is only to be taken as an example of general wastefulness.  Under the concept of ‘you shall not destroy,’ the purposeless destruction of anything at all is to be forbidden, so that our text becomes the most comprehensive warning to human beings not to misuse the position that God has given them as masters of the world and its matter to capricious, passionate, or merely thoughtless wasteful destruction of anything on earth.  Only for wise use has God laid the world at our feet when God said to humankind, “…fill the earth and master it…(Gen. 1:28)


As Jews, we know that the obligation to care for the poor and vulnerable in our communities is absolutely central to our lives.  Tragically, now more than ever, we don’t need to look very far to find people in our midst who are literally going hungry.  As Jews, as humans, we have the responsibility to do something. 


To learn more about how you can help relieve hunger in Seattle and around the country please check out these resources.


Shabbat shalom, Rabbi Jacob


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