Sunday, May 8, 2011

Journey to food justice

My daughter, Cicada Ruth Hoyt, at age 7, filling up her cup with water from our spring on Meshuganah Ranch
Welcome to my new blog. I have been working on food justice-related issues since I landed in the Ohio River Valley region in November of 1998, from the foodie capital of the Pacific Northwest: Portland, Oregon. Where I landed was in the small rural town of Paoli, Indiana, about 50 miles northwest of Louisville, Kentucky, in Orange County. Orange County is one of the most beautiful places on earth. It is home to the Hoosier National Forest, and its topography of gently rolling hills covered with farms and forests is sitting on top of one of the most extensive karst cave system in the United States. It is also considered one of the poorest communities (to government statisticians, that is) in the State of Indiana. But Orange County is rich in community spirit, and infused me with some of that good ole Hoosier spirit that sticks to me to this day.

When I arrived, the Jewish population swelled by 100%: from one family to two families, in a community of 20,000. There was one grocery store, a super Wal-Mart, which opened in 1996 and proceeded to slowly but surely eliminate all other grocery stores in town. The nearest natural food store was 50 miles away....and, as in many other rural communities in the region, your choice of restaurants included a few fast food and a few local places, including Bob's Superburger, famous for using local beef in their burgers, before eating local became the domain of the high-income hoidy toidy crowd. Potlucks are popular, but difficult for me, as the tradition in Kentuckiana is to flavor your vegetables in pork grease, taboo to a kashrut-keeping Jew.

Being a Jewish woman from New York in a town with a limited Jewish life was often a challenge for me. At various times I felt embraced by my friends there, and at other times, I felt as if I was living in my own little world that few others around me understood. Over time, I made close friends, and the locals got used to celebrating the Jewish holidays with us. Some even became my Hebrew students (referring to me by the name of Rabbi Moskowitz). People would often confuse me with the one other Jewish woman in town, even though we looked nothing alike.

But the biggest and most intriguing challenge I faced in that small rural enclave was lack of access to good, local food. That one small but very significant fact would play a huge role in flipping my world upside down, and set me on a path of becoming a food justice organizer. But that story I will save till my next entry. Stay tuned for the story of Orange County HomeGrown, or, how I learned to stop kvetching and start acting.

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