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Just Food & Gardens

Custom & Craft
Los Angeles, California United States
Leadership team

Eileen Levinson, Founder & Creative Director
Wendy Jackler, Program Manager

Organization website
Prize category
5+ years
Target audience

Just Food & Gardens provides microgrants and educational programming to LA’s faith sector to convert congregations’ land into gardens for local community. This innovative approach to faith-based institutions’ underused land cultivates access to fresh produce for underserved populations in food deserts and creates collaboration among over 50+ faith-institutions committed to religious tenets of taking care of the poor in their midst and serving as stewards of the lands that sustain them. Having installed 16 gardens, Netiya staff is uniquely qualified to provide technical assistance on garden design and garden-based educational programming integrating the traditions of that faith community.

What Jewish wisdom do you use in your work?

Netiya aims to apply the values of Torah directly on the ground, and indirectly in the culture and philosophy of our organization. Our goal is to help Jewish and other faith institutions create garden-based food programs that build capacity of the underserved, honor our food traditions, and steward our congregational lands to grow nutritious food on a minimum of 10% of the land.

As part of Netiya’s commitment to the practice of ma’aser (tithing) followed by many faith traditions, produce harvested from our Just Gardens goes through a reverse tithing – 90% is utilized to address hunger, and 10% is for the institution. Netiya asks each of the 34 members in the Netiya network to sign a Covenant pledging to convert 10% of their unused institutional land into gardens and orchards. Acknowledging both the scarcity of access to arable land in urban Los Angeles, and the privilege of California’s bountiful climate which makes the growing of food possible year-round, this Covenant demonstrates Just Gardens commitment to fulfilling the commandment of Bal Taschit (“Do not Destroy”) by utilizing available and fertile land resources in the fight against hunger in our city instead of letting them lie waste. Our hope is that over the coming decade, 10% of all faith institutions in Los Angeles will have converted 10% of their land into high yield urban gardens or orchards and tithing their crops while cultivating an interfaith network that capitalizes on the values, resources, and infrastructure of the faith community.

This also stems from Netiya’s study of Maimonides 8 laws of giving - we strongly believe in teaching ourselves and those around us to fish, and moving the conventional religious sector away from Food Relief projects that involved charitable handouts, and toward Food Sovereignty work that involves working with and not for others. These Jewish ideals are further explored with Netiya’s small staff and leadership team (Executive Council of 5 women in leadership, as well as with our Advisory Board) regularly and taught around the country whenever we are given that opportunity. Most recently, Devorah Brous gave the closing plenary at the Interfaith Sustainable Food Collaborative Annual Symposium in Northern California about ma’aser ani.

Some other examples include applying Jewish communal stewardship and shomrei adamah on faith-based institutional lands and include the following core tenets of Judaism from the agrarian laws of giving: Tzedakah, Shmita, Pe'ah, Leket, Shich'chah, Orla, Peret, and Ma’aser Ani.

How does your program work to make that wisdom accessible and directly applicable to your audience's lives?

Our work is rooted in the idea of continuously pursuing justice, from the idea, tzedek, tzedek tirdof, and we believe that the Jewish agrarian law of leaving one’s corners unturned is directly impelling our community to advance food access that includes the most food insecure neighborhoods in every city, for we were once food insecure slaves. We are very inspired by the national work of the Jewish Food Movement, and participate at the Leichtag Hub with sixteen other Jewish Farming organizations, whom we share ideas with, and learn from yearly.

Being Green Jews is at the very core of who we are as organizers, and this is felt in three ways: 1) through our educational and community building work, 2) through our physical actions and lobbying efforts in LA, and 3) through the culture of our young organization. For example, Netiya practiced the entire year of Shmita by teaching the ancient concepts throughout LA, and striving to revitalize the teachings by publicly committing to not organize any plantings all year. Additionally, in keeping with the Shmita teachings, Netiya held a series of retreats for our leadership team to reflect on our objectives and articulate our Strategic Plan for the coming cycle.

The Jewish wisdom is also made accessible directly in our fieldwork. Netiya goes to congregations of all faiths, installs gardens, and offers hands-on and community-wide teachings from earth-based Torah (about the three gifts to the poor from the field; and the four gifts from the vineyard; and from the trees that are planted, pruned and harvested every year). At every community event, Netiya leads rituals connected to our ancient cycles, teaching congregations in our network to give back to the land.

Every work day at one of our community garden sites begins and ends with programming that forges connections between Judaism and the natural world and/or social justice through the lens of Tikkun Olam. Our fieldwork imprints the Jewish values and the focus on repairing the blighted and underused landscapes through ba’al taschit, we don’t believe in wasting public or private lands when there are such high rates of obesity and heart disease, and such a serious issue with food access in LA County. We believe in re-connecting people back to the lands, and back to food production that we as agrarian Jews once knew well. For closing circles at all Netiya events we ask each participant to envision the garden/orchard we’ve installed or upgraded, and who is tending it, and who it is feeding in seven years time when we leave the land fallow to observe Shmita.

What impact has your program had on your participants?

Food insecurity is on the rise in Los Angeles, and the county is now home to the highest rates of childhood obesity in California. In five years, Netiya has converted over 14 acres of land on faith-based institutions property into orchards, in ground vegetable gardens, and 32 raised vegetable beds, many handicapped accessible, for the benefit of local community.
These gardens produce food that can be donated to local food pantries and serve as educational resources for congregational families and students. As the Muslim Head of School at Netiya partner, New Horizons said recently,

“...some schools construct a new science building or arts building. Four walls and a ceiling; a new learning space. The garden has...the sky as a ceiling, and it is a new learning space. It is, in fact, an outdoor classroom. And the garden will touch every subject in the school curriculum...learning about photosynthesis in the garden will be far more interesting than reading it out of a textbook and the tilling of the soil, the reaping of a harvest, and the giving of some of the harvest to the needy, will be more instructive and life-changing than getting a lecture about why charity is important. We hope students will see the garden as a place for inquiry, exploration, and discovery, for appreciating nature and our Creator, for learning where food comes from, for eating more healthfully, for understanding the value of water in an ecosystem, and for becoming better human beings.”

Additionally, Netiya has partnered with over 50 different faith based and community groups, installed 16 institutional-scale gardens, conducted over 160 educational workshops, and offered 10 matching microgrants to faith-based institutions to showcase food production on their campuses. This work is impacting participants through strategic efforts to build food sovereignty: the ability of people to define their own food system, and have access to healthy food that is grown through environmentally sustainable methods.

What have you learned about applied Jewish wisdom that contributes to your success?

The success of Netiya is rooted in authentically celebrating, learning, and honoring Jewish wisdom. During the shmita year, Netiya encouraged all partners to let their orchards, in ground gardens, and raised beds lie fallow and provided educational framework on this Jewish tenant. We have learned that by living Jewish values and wisdom and sharing these with our partners we are able to build more community and engage more faith institutions as we provide them opportunities to live Jewish wisdom while cultivating Just Food & Gardens.