A few months ago, I attended a conference in Oakland, California, hosted by the Interfaith Sustainable Food Collaborative (ISFC). ISFC works to reconnect religious people to a sustainable food system through their faith community and to expand the base of the sustainable agricultural movement to improve public policy. At this conference, we heard from members of the triadic Abrahamic religions on strategies for both utilizing congregations as resources for local food systems and mobilizing socio-political support for equitably sustainable policy.
According to an analysis crafted by UC Berkeley’s Terner Center for Housing Innovation, there are roughly 38,800 acres of land used for religious purposes in California that are potentially developable. Faith communities can utilize this land to support local food systems by creating community gardens and storage for food resources. For many urban and beginning growers, securing land is one of the biggest hurdles to establishing community gardens or food forests. Partnerships to allow congregation members, local community groups, and community members to use land owned by religious institutions are key leverage points for increasing food security, especially when considering barriers to land and homeownership that exist within California. There are also many options for how to structure congregational community gardens. Religious institutions can lease their land to the community in plots for individuals or families to grow the food that they want, or congregations can run and manage gardens to disperse food throughout their communities. For example, Urban Adamah, a Jewish educational farm and community center in Berkeley, is managed and operated by staff and volunteers who grow food for the community rather than individuals. Urban Adamah donates 90% of their food to local food pantries, resulting in thousands of pounds of fresh produce available to the community annually. The other 10% is also given away at their free on-site community fridge.
Land can also be used for food or resource storage. Congregations can partner with local food banks or organizations to create food banks or kitchens. Going to a religious organization like a church instead of a food bank or kitchen could encourage greater community utilization of these services. Many people who need food avoid pantries or other assistance because of stigma. Offering food pickups, hot meals, or other food services at congregations as community-building events could help those dealing with the stigmas surrounding poverty achieve hunger relief. This could be especially useful during natural disasters. Congregations can support communities in crisis during earthquakes, fires, heat waves, power outages, or any other events by offering kitchen or cold food storage in emergency situations.
Additionally, congregations can utilize their land for resource storage to support their community. If individuals or groups have their own gardens, they might have additional needs beyond land access. Congregations can be hubs for public resources like gardening or land management tools. Congregations can host community toolsheds to share resources with new or struggling producers. This can even go beyond physical tools; religious institutions can host workshops on gardening, training on tool use, or community events like seed swaps to encourage community resiliency.
Beyond land use, religious institutions can utilize their influence to mobilize support for sustainable food legislation and policies. At the ISFC Conference in Oakland, many nonreligious community organizers attended to encourage action for just and sustainable food policies. Faith-based advocacy has a long history in the United States and has been used to lobby politicians, influence judicial review, and change legislation. Even though faith-based advocacy has been too often used to support social conservatism, it has the potential to actuate comprehensive environmental and food system legislation. Many faiths, both Abrahamic and non-Abrahamic, value justice, love, integrity, generosity, responsibility, and charity. By tapping into these core beliefs, faith communities can and should be called to support legislation to improve green spaces, increase access to healthy food and clean water, and increase sustainable land use for the benefit of all life. Environmental nonprofits and advocacy groups can appeal to these religious values to leverage congregational leadership to encourage the support of local initiatives and legislation by mobilizing constituents through direct outreach or events like the ISFC Conference.
Cause IQ reports that there are over 36,361 religious institutions in the state of California that earn over $7 billion in annual revenue and own $33 billion in assets. The Pew Research Center also reports that about 1 in 3 Californians regularly attend religious services. This large community presents an auspicious opportunity to garner resources and support for sustainable food systems. Local organizations like RCDs, food pantries, urban farms, and ecology centers must utilize the resources and communities of religious institutions to ensure food security and sustainable development.