There are few activities in life that have more real and symbolic importance than food. Whether we talk about the prevalence of hunger in the world (13 percent of the world's population by U.N. estimates), the epidemic of obesity in America, or the impact of what we grow and how we grow it on the environment, food impacts people and the planet in dramatic ways.
All of this suggests that we need to approach the act of eating in a way far more mindful than is currently the case. In this week's biblical portion, Beha'alotcha, we have perhaps the archetypical biblical story of what consumption looks like without mindfulness.
The Israelites are, at this point in the biblical narrative, wandering in the desert and romanticizing their recollections of Egypt as a place where food, and particularly meat, was abundant. In the desert, God was providing a vegetarian option -- Manna -- on a daily basis, and a double portion on Friday so that no collection had to be done on Shabbat. But the Manna had become stale (pun intended) and the people called for a return to Egypt just so they could eat meat. Consumption had become more important than freedom.
Moses looks to God for some relief from the ongoing complaining of the people, and God complies by sending a flock of quail that conveniently drop out of the sky in the vicinity of the Israelite encampment. The quail are both a response to an outcry and a test. And the Israelites fail the test. They consume so much quail so quickly that a plague overtakes the tribe and thousands die, many with the meat of quail still in their mouths. Our ancestors ate themselves to death. The Torah calls the place of this incident, Kibrot Taavah, the graves of consumption. It may foreshadow our own future. The graves of consumption, indeed!
If Kibroth Taavah is the time and place that the children of Israel faced their consumption test, today humanity faces its own consumption test. We simply cannot continue to consume to our appetite's content. It is bad for humans and it is bad for the planet.
For people of faith there is yet another concern that we need to consider when thinking about our eating habits: the workers who helped to produce the food and bring it to market. The food industry is notorious for abusing the very laborers who make our food easily available and affordable. This includes the workers in the fields, the ones who work in processing plants and the ones who work in the restaurants.
Laborers who work in the food industry are vulnerable to abuse because most are immigrants who have come to this country without the proper documents for residency or for work. Having poor language skills, and desperate to earn a few dollars for themselves or sometimes to send back to their families in their countries of origin, these migrant workers have no bargaining power. Only 2 percent of these workers have union membership compared to 12 percent of American workers.
A few months ago I traveled to Immokalee, Fla., with Rabbis for Human Rights-North America to see this problem first-hand. Every year, from September until May, millions of tomatoes are harvested in Florida and shipped all around the country. Because of exemptions related to farmworkers in American labor law, these laborers are paid by the pound, not by the hour. They are paid $0.50 for every 32 pound bucket of tomatoes they pick. (We pay $75-80 in the store for the same quantity of tomatoes.) At those rates, many workers make well below the minimum wage, for an average salary of about $10,000 per year. To add injury to the slave-like wages, they also face extreme pesticide exposure and unsafe working conditions. Meanwhile, cases of human trafficking and slavery are rampant. One federal prosecutor has called Florida "ground zero" for modern slavery.
On our trip to Florida, we spent time with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), a grassroots effort run by migrant farmers that is making impressive progress to improve working conditions for farmworkers. CIW's Campaign for Fair Food started in 2001, and it gives evidence of the power of organizing to improve the lives of tens of thousands of workers who, for too long, have been victimized by a society that puts profits over prophets.
The campaign sought to get food companies to pay one penny more per bushel of tomatoes, an amount that would go directly to the workers. It also asked the companies that hire these laborers to comply with practices that protected the safety and rights of the workers in other industries.
Their first breakthroughs happened with fast food chains Taco Bell, McDonalds and Burger King as a result of boycotts by college students that took place across the country. Now CIW is targeting the major supermarket chains with similar boycotts. I was part a small group of rabbis that engaged in public actions at a Publix and a Trader Joes in February. Later that week, Trader Joes signed on to the CIW campaign, joining Whole Foods as the first chains in the country to comply with the terms of the campaign.
Why has Rabbis for Human Rights taken on this cause? Primarily because we understand that unless consumers are made aware of how their buying habits can affect the experience of those who are so often at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder, we perpetuate systems of oppression. That is also why we encouraged Jews to add a tomato to their Passover seder plates as a way to raise awareness of how we might battle the plague of modern slavery.
Most of us are like the Israelites in the desert. We like to eat what we want whenever we want to. Yet with a little effort, we can make our appetite for justice as voracious as our appetite for food. When we do, we will find that, unlike with cake, we can have our tomato -- and eat it too.
ON Scripture -- The Torah is a weekly Jewish scriptural commentary, produced in collaboration with Odyssey Networks and Hebrew College. Thought leaders from the United States and beyond offer their insights into the weekly Torah portion and contemporary social, political, and spiritual life.