Jews throughout the world will soon undertake the traditional Yom Kippur fast — a mitzvah of self-denial that sets the tone for repenting for sins committed during the previous year. But for one in five residents of Southeast Michigan, fasting or eating a small meal is not a choice but a necessity on a regular basis. They lack sufficient healthy food due to low income, limited nearby food stores or inadequate transportation to reach markets.
Many efforts are under way locally to change this, and Jewish community members are leading initiatives to expand food collection and distribution to the needy throughout the region as well as to improve healthy food options for city residents. Other organizations focus on advocacy for environmental and safety issues related to food.
Forgotten Harvest, which collects 40 million pounds of food annually from local markets, farmers, caterers and food wholesalers for redistribution to 250 emergency food providers, was started by the Jewish community, led by Nancy Fishman, Ph.D., in 1990. She was concerned because so much excess food was being wasted when it was needed elsewhere.
This wasted food included leftovers from bar mitzvah parties as well as large quantities of food from wholesalers, manufacturers and retail stores. Such food is often close to its “sell by” date and therefore destined for dumpsters even though it’s safe to consume. Forgotten Harvest collects donated food from 800 sites, using a fleet of refrigerated trucks and delivers them to 288 agencies such as homeless shelters, emergency food pantries and soup kitchens throughout the region. More than 40 million pounds of surplus prepared and perishable food was put to good use across the region last year.
The idea for a food rescue organization evolved from a Mazon Council that was meeting at Temple Israel. Mazon, described as a Jewish response to hunger, provides grants to food providers in the U.S. and Israel and advocates on behalf of those who face hunger. The Detroiters raised money for a soup kitchen, but Fishman realized this wasn’t a sustainable solution so she then created the “24th perishable food rescue operation in the U.S.”
Rabbi Paul Yedweb of Temple Israel, a founding board member of Forgotten Harvest, came up with the name — referring to the Bible’s instruction to farmers that they leave forgotten or leftover crops in the fields for the needy.
Fishman points out that Yad Ezra, Metro Detroit kosher food pantry, and other programs were offshoots of Forgotten Harvest. Some years after it began, the founders decided to broaden the group beyond the Jewish community. Fishman, 67, recently moved to a small town in California, but stays connected with Forgotten Harvest.
A Jewish leadership perspective is returning to Forgotten Harvest with the election of Hannan Lis, 57, as board chair. Lis is well-known as a businessman, philanthropist and activist in both the Jewish and secular communities. He is CEO of The WW Group Inc., Weight Watchers’ largest franchise group, and founder and CEO of Lis Ventures LLC, a venture fund investing in emerging technologies and service companies.
As a Forgotten Harvest board member for several years, Lis received a “sober awakening to the scope of the food problem. People make choices between food, medicine and sometimes shelter. It is a national problem that affects both city and suburban residents,” he says.
For Lis, the importance of ensuring sufficient food for everyone reflects his own background. His deceased parents experienced hunger in Europe during World War II while living in a ghetto, a Siberian work camp and in occupied Transylvania.
“We need to remember our collective experience as Jewish people and fight to combat food insecurities for others,” he says. “I want to expand the presence of Forgotten Harvest in the Jewish community. It is one of the ways Jewish people need to give back.”
According to Forgotten Harvest, 500,000 individuals in the tri-county area live in poverty, many facing “food insecurity” — a USDA term that refers to individuals who don’t know where their next meal is coming from. Lea Luger, executive director of Yad Ezra, says that 1 out of 20 Jewish families in the area rely on the kosher food pantry to supplement their food supply at no cost. Yad Ezra enables 1,300 families to select groceries as well as health and household items on a monthly basis.
Yad Ezra also works to raise awareness of the hunger problem through hunger seders, meetings with legislators and collaboration with other food providers. Mazon has funded a staff person and related costs for Yad Ezra to help register individuals for SNAP, Michigan’s food stamp program for low income residents.
Karen “Chava” Knox, a resident of Eden Gardens on Detroit’s east side, was concerned some of her neighbors lacked good food and that area children didn’t understand the importance of healthy eating. Older people without cars or who could no longer drive were particularly limited in terms of food options.
Knox is a board member of the Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue (IADS) and was also interested in bringing the black and Jewish communities together. She is African American and a convert to Judaism.
Establishing a community garden seemed like a good use for vacant land in Eden Gardens as well as a potential source of fresh produce. Around the same time, IADS wanted to “make a connection with a Detroit neighborhood,” says Arlene Frank, IADS executive director. Blair Nosan, also a synagogue member, began working with Knox to create a community farm in Eden Gardens. The Jewish Women’s Foundation provided an initial grant, and neighborhood residents as well as synagogue members joined together to prepare vacant land and plant crops.
Today, Eden Farms encompasses three city lots planted with produce. Children learn about growing crops and the value of eating healthy foods. Neighborhood and IADS volunteers continue to work on the farm. Knox says this year’s crop was given to neighborhood residents and to IADS. Next year, she hopes to donate some food to Forgotten Harvest and sell some at Eastern Market.
Detroit is considered a national leader in such urban gardens and farms, with an estimated 1,400 operating, according to Keep Detroit Growing, a nonprofit that works with community groups and others to establish gardens. They help neighborhoods by increasing the supply of accessible fresh, healthy food.
Noam Kimelman, 29, who has a master’s degree in public health management from the University of Michigan, was doing volunteer work in Detroit and also was concerned about fresh food access. With one-third of households lacking a car and sparse public transportation, he realized many Detroiters relied on neighborhood convenience or party stores for food, despite their focus on pop, liquor and salty snacks.
Kimelman and Val Waller decided to co-found a company, Fresh Food Cafe, to make and package healthy lunches and snacks for sale at neighborhood gas stations and convenience stores. They allowed prospective customers to sample their products to encourage sales. Their food is sourced locally, and now their products are distributed to 36 Detroit stores.
In addition, they sell healthy lunches, some of which are subsidized, at local community centers at Fresh Corner Pop-Ups and at work sites, and provide catering at city events.
The root causes of hunger, food insecurity and malnutrition, including poverty, food distribution issues and inadequate transportation, are complex and chronic. However, sources of better food — sometimes locally grown — are expanding in and around Detroit.
Lis points out the U.S. is the breadbasket to much of the world, growing and distributing massive quantities of food, so the plight of Americans struggling with hunger and poor nutrition is especially ironic and disturbing.
By Shari S. Cohen | Contributing Writer
Many of these organizations seek donations and volunteers:
- www.Detroitinterfaithcouncil.com (affiliated with Mazon)
(Gleaners is a nonprofit that collects food and donations from individual and corporate donors.)
(kosher food pantry)