It’s not uncommon for people to make the claim that products that are kosher are healthier and better for the environment. Indeed, that is the ideal underlying kashrut. Unfortunately, as our food systems have become more industrialized, so, too, has the kosher food world, thus, as some would say, losing its way.
Simone Friedman, Head of Philanthropy and Impact Investment for the DC-based Emanuel J. Friedman (EJF) Philanthropies, grew up hearing stories of her late grandfather, a rabbi, traveling around North Carolina in the 1950s to perform shechitah (kosher slaughter) on chickens for the local Jewish population. But Rabbi Samuel Friedman wouldn’t slaughter just any bird—he was known for turning down chickens that were sick or had trouble walking, declaring them unfit for kosher consumption.
The majority of animals raised for consumption today wouldn’t meet Rabbi Friedman’s standards, explains his granddaughter. Factory farming has created a system in which animals are bred to grow unnaturally quickly so that they can make it to our supermarket shelves quickly. These animals are morbidly obese (the equivalent of a human child weighing 500 pounds at age ten) and unhealthy, living short lives of suffering. This contradicts the Jewish commandment of tzaar baalei hayim, which forbids us from causing unnecessary suffering to animals.
This is not the way meat, especially kosher meat, was meant to be, and it’s the reason that EJF Philanthropies has become very active in supporting the farms and kosher slaughterers working to bring kosher, ethically raised heritage breeds of poultry and grass-fed, grass-finished beef to markets and to spread the word about the dangers of factory farming for our bodies, animals and the environment through movies such as the recently released documentary Eating Animals.
Directed by Christopher Quinn and narrated by Natalie Portman, Eating Animals is based on the 2009 book by Jonathan Safran Foer of the same name. The movie reveals the cruelty of factory farming and challenges viewers to rethink their consumption of animal products.
Despite what some may think, the film doesn’t preach veganism. Certainly, it encourages viewers to reduce meat consumption and seek out more plant-based options. But—just as important—it also seeks to open our eyes to farmers like Frank Reese of Good Shepherd Poultry Ranch who are raising heritage animals with pure genetic lines, caring for them, ensuring that they grow at their natural pace and are happy and healthy and, yes, even loving them. Surprising as it may seem, in raising and breeding these animals for food, Reese and other farmers like him are ensuring that these unique genetic breeds don’t disappear from our world.
In the Jewish community, for example, Hazon has embraced this, including ensuring that all poultry at its August Food Conference is 100-percent heritage and putting a policy into place whereby over a seven-year period it radically increases the amount of heritage chicken offered at all of its programs while educating participants about the value of heritage breeds for our food systems. As Executive Vice President and Chief Program Officer Judith Belasco shares, this follows on the footsteps of last year’s initiative to offer only eggs that meet the highest standards of welfare. At the same time, Hazon is also working to promote the “flipped-plate approach,” in which plant-based dishes are the centerpiece of the meal, with meat taking the role of a side, consumed in smaller portions and less frequently.
With films like Eating Animals and initiatives by a variety of organizations and farmers, Friedman and EJF Philanthropies hope to spread the word about the cruelty of factory farming and educate consumers about the more palatable options available. As more consumers begin to think about these issues and organizations begin to practice more thoughtful food procurement, demand for ethically raised meat and plant-based alternatives will go up and prices will go down, leading to real change, namely a reduction in factory farming and a food system that is more sustainable and healthier for all those involved.