Jewish values drive urban farmers’ stewardship efforts

A local urban farmer reveals the connections between Judaism and food justice.

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Harvesting collards in the South 1080 just outside KAMII’s main sanctuary. Photo credit: Robert Nevel

The KAM Isaiah Israel Food Justice and Sustainability Program is, at its root, a social justice program. Access to nourishing, wholesome food, clean air and water, healthy soil -- these are basic human needs and rights. Since our program's start in 2009, we have addressed these issues through urban farming (transforming lawns into food producing micro-farms, growing fruits and vegetables, and distributing the harvests to those in need) and by educating and advocating for food and eco-justice through our annual MLK weekend and Farm and Food Forest School. 

In addition to this ongoing work, we construct, as a counterpoint to our row cropping, food forests, and pollinator walls in heretofore underutilized, and unproductive urban areas. Just as with the micro-farms, the idea is to transform unproductive spaces into productive ones. We pursue this work in order to establish ever more sustainable and secure sources of food. The first such project was installed in 2015 at KAMII, along Hyde Park Boulevard, just outside the main sanctuary. Three others, one at a nearby public elementary school and two more at KAMII, have been installed since that time. 

Who does all this work? An interfaith group of volunteer farmers and educators, many of whom have been with the program since 2009 and a farm manager and farm school director. In addition to our regular farm crew, we work and partner with a long list of institutions, organizations and businesses. That list includes University of Chicago Medicine, Illinois Farm Bureau, University of Illinois Extension, DePaul, Jewish United Fund, Lutheran School of Theology, Kenwood United Church of Christ, Chicago Housing Authority, Chicago Public Schools, Chicago Park Department, Johnny's Selected Seeds, and Illinois Environmental Council. 

Food justice and sustainability drive our growing, connecting that work to climate change drives our education and advocacy work. At the 2015 MLK weekend, we announced that climate change would be the theme of every MLK weekend through 2021. "Climate Change and Civil Rights" was the theme that launched this effort and set forth our belief that climate change is one of the central social justice issues of the day. "Climate Change and A Chicago Public Food Forest" brought us together this past January at KAMII. 

What from Judaism drives our work? Tzedek, tzedek tirdof --justice, justice shall you pursue, tikkun olam --repairing the world and, bal tashchit --do not destroy or waste. Since 2009, our farm family has been guided by all three. We have pursued justice by providing food for those in need and teaching others how to do the same. We have helped repair the world by growing good food and good soil. And we have eliminated waste by turning useless lawns into food for people and pollinators. 

What from Judaism influences our approach? Exploring observances and connecting them to our food and eco-justice work through programs such as "Tu B'shevat, Food Forests and Sustainable Urban Design" and "Shmita: Food Security and Sustainable Design in the Sabbatical Year and Beyond."

We, our crew, think of ourselves as people of faith and people of the farm. People of the Book and people of the ten tine. People of the yarmulke and people of bib overalls. People of reverence and people of love. We know that food and eco justice are enormous goals. We know that the social determinants of health negatively affect those in need more than those well off. We know that climate change is a gargantuan problem. We also know, from Rabbi Tarfon that--"It is not incumbent upon you to complete the work, but neither are you at liberty to desist from it." We often repeat these words. They keep us growing.

For more information on the KAM Isaiah Israel Food Justice and Sustainability Program, visit .

Robert Nevel is an architect, urban farmer, and pioneer in the food and eco-justice movement. He is the founder and director of the Food Justice and Sustainability Program at KAM Isaiah Israel.

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