Jews, Food, and Vegas

Originally posted on the Pursue blog.

Las Vegas: the city of casinos, staged spectacles, over-the-top hotels and FOOD. One could spend days in a single casino and not exhaust all the eating venues within. For many visitors, going to one of the famed buffets is a can’t-miss Vegas experience: prettily presented and puffed up beyond reasonable sizes, buffets are events that one must prepare for in order to successfully participate.

Given this abundance, I shouldn’t have been shocked to find that when I Googled “Las Vegas food justice” before my trip to TribeFest last week, the “Noshing on Food Justice” session presented by Pursue’s Jocelyn Berger and myself, along with Lisa Lepson from the Joshua Venture Group, was the second result on the page. Yet, while it’s true that Vegas is still associated with excess of all kinds, I was pleasantly surprised to discover during our session that food justice efforts in Vegas are beginning to mirror like-minded efforts in cities across the country.

“Noshing on Food Justice” was billed as an opportunity for beginners to engage with the issues and terminology of the food justice movement and its connections to Jewish values, texts, and organizations working on the issues. Taking place within TribeFest, a gathering of 1,200+ young Jews sponsored by the Jewish Federations of North America, one among a buffet of session options and set in the midst of Vegas distractions, we weren’t sure who would show up for our morning session (just before lunch, appropriately). So we were thrilled to encounter the 60 or so individuals who arrived passionate, informed, and well-versed on many food justice concerns.

Jocelyn kicked things off with an informal poll of what people ate that day, where it came from, who was involved in getting it to them, and how it was produced. Going through a chart of the food system, participants raised questions about the environmental impact of multiple trucks for shipping and the conditions in the factories where laborers process food products for consumption. Together, we worked to come up with a definition of just what “food justice” means. Following a text study about workers’ rights, treatment of animals, and environmental ethics, Lisa highlighted a number of Joshua Venture grantees who put these Jewish values into practice, like the Jewish Farm School and Uri L’Tzedek.

The best part of “Noshing on Food Justice,” however – like most of TribeFest – was hearing about what people are doing in their local communities. People from Toledo, Detroit, Seattle and Las Vegas spoke about the arrival of composting centers, community garden initiatives and more. There was a sense that not only is concern for food justice expanding across the country – and that Jewish communities are increasingly aware of and taking part in the movement – it’s also coalescing under a shared vision of what food justice means and what are the best activities toward achieving it.

Maybe in a few months, that composting center in Vegas will creep up the Google results for “Las Vegas food justice.” Until then, it was reassuring and inspiring to see young Jews coming together to engage with questions around the food movement – even as they headed out the door to grab boxed lunches of individually wrapped sandwiches and unhealthy snacks. Perhaps next year, we’ll all rise to the challenge right in front of us and make sure that, notwithstanding indulgent Vegas buffets, the food at TribeFest is ethically and sustainably provided. And we can hope to hear from more and more participants around the country who are acting effectively in their local communities toward creating a more just global food system.