Together at the Table: YDS students, New Haven community celebrate food justice

March 2013
By James Jenkins ’15 M.Div.
Yale University Notes from the Quad

[Editor’s Note: James Jenkins ’15 M.Div. is Sustainability Coordinator at YDS. We have invited him to periodically share about the various projects YDS Sustainability coordinates.] 

“When people learn that by taking control of your communities, by taking control of your lives, by collaboration—because when we work together, it’s ours—you make a difference,” Stacy Spell told the audience of divinity students, community leaders, and regional food advocates gathered in Marquand Chapel February 22-23 for a local conference on food justice. 

As a gardener at the Little Red Hen Community Garden, president of the West River Neighborhood Service Corporation, board member at the New Haven Land Trust, retired homicide detective, and 2011 New Haven Man of the Year, Stacy Spell also preaches through his hands in the soil. He has seen crime drop by 80 percent in West River by creating neighborhood gardens and other projects that foster community ownership.

In this common spirit, Yale Divinity School was proud to host Nourish New Haven, a local food justice and sustainability conference connecting community leaders across Yale University and New Haven. Panel discussions, workshops, films, food, neighbors, and new visitors celebrated food justice and food literacy initiatives. Over 350 people registered as participants and presenters in the free conference with major funding from Yale Divinity School, Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, and The Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale. Leaders from the New Haven Food Policy Council, Common Ground High School, Yale Sustainable Food Project, the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale, The Bioregional Group, and Greenhorns contributed additional “inspiration and information” to the community feast.

Middlebury College professor emeritus and Yale University graduate John Elder opened the conference with a talk titled “Together at the Table.” Sharing his personal Yale stories from the late 1960’s of Passover Seder meals with fellow graduate students and hunger fasts with William Sloane Coffin, Elder reflected on the deep theological tradition of communion and its implications for addressing social and ecological challenges. As a leading environmentalist, Elder explained how “food has replaced wilderness as the beating heart of the environmental movement,” emphasizing the “fundamental rights of every human being to have tasty and nutritious food.” He also quoted his minister father who defined religion as a “structure of beliefs and practices through which we can affirm the universe.” Elder expressed his hope for the conference to provide a practical, equitable table for holding in common with others—not only to talk but also to eat and to be nourished. 

Following Elder’s remarks Friday evening, attendees had the opportunity to enjoy some delicious food and watch either Soul Food Junkies or Fresh—two recent documentaries about challenges and solutions in the American food system. After the films, everyone reconvened in Marquand Chapel for a local food system panel moderated by Melissa Spear, Executive Director of Common Ground, featuring Mark Bomford of the Yale Sustainable Food Project, Nicole Berube of CitySeed, Nadine Nelson of Global-Local Gourmet, Shannon Raider-Ginsburg of Common Ground, Steve Munno of Massaro Farm, Bun Lai of Miya’s Sushi, Stacy Spell, and The Reverend Alex Dyer of St. Paul-St. James Episcopal Church, which sponsors the Loaves and Fishes Food Pantry. The evening concluded in the Common Room with donated delights from Miya’s Sushi, Claire’s Corner Copia, Nica’s Market, and Caseus Fromagerie Bistro.

During the food system panel, Melissa Spear explained that 24 percent of New Haven residents live below the poverty level with inadequate access to healthy food. The New Haven Food Action Plan reports 80 percent of New Haven Public School students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. Starting in June 2013, the New Haven Green will host a farmers’ market for the first time in over 200 years thanks to CitySeed and the New Haven Food Policy Council. 

The Reverend Alex Dyer described how the Loaves and Fishes partnership with CitySeed provides, on average, 250 people nutritious groceries every week. 

Bun Lai explained how local New Haven restaurant Miya’s Sushi draws inspiration from different cooking techniques to represent the “harmonization of human beings coming together.” Started 31 years ago on Howe Street, Miya’s consists of New Haven residents—many graduates of New Haven Public Schools—who work together to nourish the community. This February Bun and the Miya’s team were nominated as Restaurant and Chef semifinalists for the James Beard Foundation Awards, the national food Oscars.

Saturday morning included a community fair, two workshop sessions, a New Haven Food Policy Council panel, and a celebratory lunch catered by Yale Dining. Nadine Nelson and Tagan Engel helped transform the YDS Common Room into a “Public Kitchen” and interactive exhibit of local food initiatives. The conference also included the Lexicon of Sustainability artwork, on loan from Boston’s Museum of Science. A team of divinity students baked scones, muffins, and pastries to complement beverages from Koffee on Audubon. Divinity students and faculty joined local and national leaders to provide leadership in six of eleven workshops. 

Director of Public Policy at the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale, Roberta Friedman moderated an interactive panel with Tagan Engel, Anika Thrower, Dawn Slade, Maria Tupper, and Frank Mitchell—all members of the New Haven Food Policy Council who helped create the New Haven Food Action Plan in 2012. Rafi Taherian, Ron DeSantis, David Kuzma, Pedro Tello, and Donna Hall at Yale Dining volunteered to prepare an exceptional culminating community lunch. 

While Nourish New Haven aimed to connect divinity students and other attendees with current projects happening across New Haven—from the Divinity Farm to the New Haven Food Policy Council working groups—the weekend celebration also served as a greater call to action for ongoing partnerships to address food justice. 80 percent of survey respondents selected “very interested” or “ready to take a leadership role” in a future Nourish New Haven conference. As one survey respondent shared, “This was amazing! I only planned to go on Friday for the film, but everything was just so good I stayed till the end on Friday and came back Saturday! What a fantastic, inspiring, and wonderful event!” 

Nourish New Haven originated from work happening through YDS Sustainability and a class taught by Willis Jenkins through the Divinity School and the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. The conference builds upon “Mobilizing Faith, Fighting Poverty,” a larger initiative sponsored by Yale Divinity School to combat hunger and poverty, locally and globally. The spirit of Nourish New Haven responds to the passions and needs in this community for food justice and food literacy. Participants go forward nourished by the spirit of community gathered “together at the table.”

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