Alumni Spotlight: Jeff Sharlein
Jeff Sharlein participated in AVODAH in New York in 2001-2002. A social worker, Jeff currently volunteers with Earthworks Urban Farm in Detroit.
What was your experience in AVODAH like?
I'd always been interested in both Judaism and social justice but was not interested in "doing Jewish" professionally. In AVODAH, I was immersed in Judaism in programs at home but not doing explicit Jewish work outside. This was really good for me. Since AVODAH, I haven't been super active in the alumni community, but just knowing that I am part of a community of like-minded people with a shared experience is powerful in some way.
How did you get involved with food justice work?
I started getting really interested in food issues when I was in AVODAH. In the AVODAH house, we joined the Park Slope Food Coop. Being part of the Coop for six or seven years gave me a sense of working for my food in a different kind of way. I was very aware of the way things are labeled, which is different than in a regular supermarket. This is initially how food justice issues got on my radar. I read Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma and a couple of other books that also got me thinking more about locally-grown food and local agriculture. When I ended up moving out to Detroit, I took a Detroit urban agriculture tour and one of the stops was at Earthworks Urban Farm. I got on their mailing list and then got involved.
What do you do with Earthworks?
Earthworks is affiliated with the Capuchin soup kitchen. Capuchin monks have a large presence in Detroit. At some point, one of the brothers decided he wanted to do something more systemic than feeding people so they started a farm that grows a lot of the food used in the soup kitchen. Earthworks also contributes to gardening throughout the city through its urban garden resource collaborative that provides, for a very small fee, seedlings to urban gardeners that come from the Earthworks greenhouse.
I've been volunteering with the Farm's youth programs regularly since last winter. Neighborhood children come to do activities related to healthy living and healthy eating. They have a small plot within the Earthworks plots where they plant and harvest crops. They also prepare healthy snacks with the food they've harvested. The farm itself relies heavily on volunteer labor for most of its crops, so I've also been working on the farm regularly.
What has the community's response been?
In the city, there definitely is significant interest in food justice. Urban agriculture is big in Detroit for two reasons: one, it's a food desert. I've heard conflicting things about the availability of supermarkets but they're certainly not all over. There are a lot of corner stores with less healthy food. Two, because there's plenty of vacant land on which to grow healthy food for communities since there aren't supermarkets providing it.
Earthworks definitely struggles with not just giving a service to the community but integrating its efforts with the community. Most of the volunteers on the farm, like me, come from the suburbs. Earthworks is increasing its efforts to get folks who eat at the soup kitchen to be more aware of the farm and get involved.
How do you see food justice efforts continuing in Detroit?
In Michigan, due to the suffering economy, there is a sense of trying to buy locally. Farmers' markets are really big here in the suburbs as well as the city. Kroeger's, which is one of the big grocery chains, will advertise that they carry local produce. I don't think that's something I ever heard about while living in New York. There's a general feeling that we're in bad shape and we need to do something about it. Mutual aid and becoming more mindful of where we get our food is one of the best ways we can make change.
Personally, I am interested in becoming professionally involved in food justice work. I am applying to go back to grad school for a doctorate in social work and sociology. One of the academic interests I have is in looking at alternative food economies and how they relate to the mainstream economy: how it can even be better for a community, in some regards, to grow their own food - how it could be a blessing in disguise to be cut off from the mainstream food culture.
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