Ten years ago, during a Rabbinical Assembly convention in New York, I participated in a program called Rav HaMakshir, a short intensive course for rabbis on how to supervise a kitchen. Of course all rabbis learn the laws of Kashrut, but there are unique issues associated with an industrial kitchen, either in an institution or commercial establishment.
We had two teachers during the course, a professor of Talmud at the Jewish Theological Seminary and a food scientist. While we all loved learning the halakhot of Kashrut in more depth, the most fascinating parts of the class were our times with the food scientist, Dr. Joe Regenstein. At each session with him we learned something new about how the food we eat gets to our plate.
Some of the things we learned were fascinating, some were disturbing, and I find myself thinking about those classes now as we watch our food supply chain stressed to the point of breaking. Most of the time we don’t think much about the food we eat except how it tastes. We don’t put any thought into the farmers who grow it, the workers who pack it, the truck drivers who haul it, or the grocery workers who stock it.
One bright spot to the coronavirus pandemic is that at least now we are paying attention to all of those aspects of the supply chain. At each point we are concerned for the safety of workers and the ability of the system to deliver the food we need. I hope that this crisis will prod us to address some of the persistent problems in the food industry.
Around the same time that I took the Rav HaMakshir course, the Jewish world was hit with a different food-related emergency. After terrible conditions for both workers and animals were revealed at the Rubashkin meat plant in Iowa, calls were made to improve conditions. (Sadly, the founder of the plant, Aaron Rubashkin, recently passed away from COVID-19 in New York City.) The Conservative Movement created an initiative called Magen Tzedek to create a certification that would ensure that kosher food met certain standards for environmental sustainability, worker rights, and animal welfare. Unfortunately, the program was never implemented.
During a crisis our sensitivities are heightened, but often our attention begins to lag as time moves on. Right now we are worried about the health of meat workers in the Midwest, but will we care in 2 years or will our concern fade, as it did with Magen Tzedek? The coronavirus may not be a worry once a vaccine is found, but even in the best of times the meat industry is one of the most dangerous in country, along with truck driving and other agriculture jobs.
Our responsibility, as consumers, is to do what we can to help make sure the food we eat is safe, along with the workers who prepare, package, ship, and stock it. That means taking a responsibility for a system we benefit from in good times and become acutely aware of in difficult ones. The first step is truly understanding all of the efforts that go into our food, and then encouraging, through our consumer habits, sustainable and healthy choices, not just for us, but for those who work hard to make sure we are fed.