The congregation has started a community-supported agriculture project called Tuv Ha'Aretz, which in Hebrew means both "good from the earth" and "good for the earth." Under the guidance of the New York-based organization Hazon (which itself means "vision"), Kol Ami has teamed up with Lancaster Farm Fresh, an organic farmers' cooperative in Lancaster County, Pa.
Community members buy shares of the farmers' output at the beginning of the growing season, and, in turn, the farmers deliver fresh produce to the synagogue each week, according to what's ready to go to market. Over the course of 22 weeks, each share contains between six and 10 items of organic produce per delivery.
Last month, two farmers from Lancaster Farm Fresh spoke to congregants to provide a primer on the agricultural process, so that people "could put a face to their food," said Amy Bruning of Lancaster Farm Fresh. Being more connected, she explained, is what the project is all about.
'An Ongoing Relationship'
"It's an ongoing relationship because the farmer is dropping off produce every week," said Leah Koenig, Tuv Ha'Aretz coordinator at Hazon's New York office. In addition to congregational house calls by farmers, participants will get to visit the places where their food is grown — a valuable tool for learning about sustainable agriculture.
The original push was to sign up about 30 families; almost 60 are participating, with a third of the families coming from outside the synagogue.
The program has several goals, according to co-organizer Robin Rifkin, who is also a nutritionist.
Part of the process is "to examine our thoughts about food and examine what's been taught in Judaism" on the subject, she said. The group plans to schedule discussions on conservation; what it means to say blessings before and after meals; and why organic and local foods are so crucial these days. The Jewish heritage of farming and Jewish agricultural holidays will be examined as well.
In addition, the role of charity and food will be explored. Jewish law is very specific about how much land and foodstuffs go to the poor, she noted. Kol Ami will be donating any extra or unused shares to the Mitzvah Food Pantry, a program run by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.
Still, Kol Ami will face some real challenges. Learning to eat "seasonally" can be daunting for families, especially when they have never used exotic ingredients like dandelion greens and Swiss chard in cooking before. To help participants prepare meals with these new ingredients, Kol Ami will also be holding cooking classes.
"They are not getting convenience foods," said Bruning, and so menus need to be tailored to that week's produce, a hurdle — albeit a minor one — for many families used to the variety and easy access of the grocery store.
Though there's extra work involved in meal planning, the end result will have definite nutritional advantages. "You're getting food that's harvested within 24 hours," said Bruning.
And the system works out well for the farmers, too, she added: Instead of spending a day at a market plying their wares, they can spend more of their time tending to the farms.
Local food is delivered "at its peak freshness and nutritional value," explained Mark Kaplan, program co-organizer at Kol Ami. Shorter journeys eliminate many of the environmental costs of transporting food, he explained, a toll that consumers rarely consider. When produce is out of season, costs rise dramatically, as does the impact on natural resources.
Rifkin noted that the taste of local, organic produce is superior to products shipped in from far-off locales. It's hard to go back to run-of-the-mill produce, she added, once you've partaken of food cultivated this way.
These ideas have definitely begun to catch on. Four years ago, Tuv Ha'Aretz began with one site. Now there are 10 throughout the country, and the number looks to be increasing. Hazon's Koenig has already received 40 e-mails from groups that want to start their own local farm partnerships.
Kaplan responded that "we've already seen how people have learned about it and gotten turned on to the idea."
Beyond all the environmental and nutritional benefits, he said, community-supported agriculture builds personal bonds through the communal power of food.