The eggplants in the small corner patch of the front yard have begun to put out purple and yellow flowers, hanging down like little lanterns. In a few weeks we'll have fresh eggplants. The beans I planted in May have provided us with a handful a week of sweet, crunchy string beans. The kale was eaten up by caterpillars and otherwise fared poorly in the heat and humidity of midsummer, but the basil thrived. I even have little knuckles of gingerroot putting up bright green shoots in a pot on the porch. It's not difficult to grow things, and some come up on their own -- I eat plenty of foraged purslane and milkweed pods from around the neighborhood. I don't have much space to grow these things, but I use what I have to grow my own organic food that couldn't be more local.
So much of the food movement -- whether framed in terms of organics, or local food, or sustainably raised, or grass-fed -- is simply out of reach for the many Americans living in places where basic access to real food is itself a challenge, much less affordable healthy food. High quality food is not "more expensive," but low quality, highly processed, industrially produced and government subsidized foods give us the false impression that food should be cheap. As a result, the wider food movement is sometimes critiqued for being elitist. Though I disagree, I do recognize that what I have access to is not what all Americans have access to. With my farm trips and meat CSA and preference for pesticide and GMO-free foods, I worry that when I write about food the only people who hear me are those who can afford to do the same.
Food justice is about wider principles, principles that I believe are firmly rooted in an Islamic ethics that makes it obligatory for Muslims to care for the poor. How can we as a community ensure that the members of our community (and here I mean our local communities, the people we see at the mosque or in our neighborhoods) have access not just to food -- real food, meals with ingredients we can pronounce, things our grandmothers would recognize as food -- but to food that is wholesome and ethically sound with regard to the lives of animals, laborers and the environment?
I have visited a variety of mosques in the United States that sit on a piece of land with sufficient space to grow food (although, the one closest to me is surrounded by a parking lot). What would it take to transform those spaces into gardens? How does the shift happen whereby a community can see an empty lot and imagine spaces of abundance? How do we take responsibility for making those spaces a reality? How do we reimagine the roll we play in our community, where charity can be conceived of as a gift that turns our time and energy into fresh food?
Here's what I imagine. The plants are started in early spring. Children get to poke their fingers into the trays of soil and drop a seed in. When they return the following Friday they see the first bit of green pushing upwards, still wearing the seed like a little hat. The next week, the plant is sprouting tiny leaves. It's a miracle, and they reflect on how merciful God is in transforming this tiny speck into a living organism. In a few weeks, they plant the seedlings in the ground that has been prepared by the garden volunteers and as the months progress the community watches as the orderly patch of soil becomes a raucous jungle of blossoming greens. After prayers, the volunteers for that day go out to the garden and turn on the hose. They check the plants for bugs and pull up any weeds. They chat and exchange news with one another and passersby before turning off the hose and heading home.
There is garlic, onions, peas, tomatoes, kale, spinach, carrots, squashes and whatever else. When people visit their families back home, whether in Syria or Syracuse, they bring home a few seeds from the peppers they remember from their childhood, or the melons, or the mint, and the garden begins to reflect the diversity of the community itself. In mid-summer the harvest starts. After Friday prayers families receive their basket of fresh greens and vegetables. Maybe some folks get together to fence off a chicken run, or beehives, and so the baskets start to have eggs and honey. Every so often there's even a fresh chicken. In the back is a compost bin where men and women drop off food scraps before prayers, and in a few years the soil in the garden is rich and dark. At iftar people break their fasts eating food that they've grown as a community, only a few yards away.
For those of us with mosques with unused grounds, all we require is the will. The resources are there, provided by groups like the American Community Gardening Association and Urban Harvest. We can partner with local food organizations and growing centers to get started. Surely, members of our communities have experience growing food and can share their knowledge. If not, let's reach out and connect with local gardeners. Some mosques have already done it, not to mention numerous churches and synagogues, and could share what has and has not worked for them. We can learn from one another, and then feed one another.
While this doesn't completely address the issue of how to put a better chicken in each pot, it does make for a healthy and wholesome meal -- and honestly, we could stand to eat less meat. I also want to emphasize that it's not just how we vote with our dollars, by spending money on products that reflect our ethical leanings. It's far more important to consider how we spend our time and energy, and how that capital goes into supporting one another in community. How can we move forward from an idea like this to next summer's bounty?
Krystina Friedlander is a co-founder of Beyond Halal, a project that draws on Islamic ethics to reflect on contemporary food production. Find it at BeyondHalal.com, @beyondhalal and facebook.com/beyondhalal.