The dietary laws of Judaism encourage us to think about the kind of food we eat and where it came from, says Aryeh Canter, a student in the sustainability, science and society program at McGill University
That’s one of the reasons he decided to try to sell kosher meat from ethically raised animals to the Jewish community.
“Judaism, with our extent of halachot, really encourages us to think about how we got our food and why we eat our food, and I think that by putting on a label like ‘ethically raised,’ it means I know what methods farmers used, I know how we went about doing it,” Canter said in an interview. “And it increases that consciousness and I think it increases that awareness of God.”
Well before he began this new initiative, Canter launched the Shefa Project 2-1/2 years ago. It seeks to merge Judaism with sustainable and environmental initiatives. One of its main ongoing programs is Sustainable Shabbat, where the members prepare food for Shabbat that is all locally grown and organic. They also conduct hands-on workshops and take field trips to landfills and farms so that people can understand where their food comes from and what responsibility they have to the environment.
For Canter, the idea of providing the community with meat from ethically raised animals did not come simply because of the health benefits of eating animals that are not pumped with hormones and antibiotics and stuck in a cage all day, but said studies show that free-range and antibiotic-free animals are healthier and provide us with more nutritious meat. He also wanted to show the Jewish community that kosher should by default mean ethical, but unfortunately, it often doesn’t.
“With the mechanization of our food system, Jews, by majority, are no longer farmers. Thus, we never see how the animals we eat live, only concerning ourselves that it was a kosher slaughter,” Canter wrote on his blog. “We are thus denied the opportunity to apply the very relevant principle of t’zaar ba’alei chaim (distress of a living animal).
But while many people visiting a farm or seeing video evidence would be shocked at the way animals we eat are treated. Most are cooped up for days, fed poor diets and mainly cheap food like corn.
The lambs used for the meat Canter sold were raised on a farm in Sherbrooke, Que., outside of Montreal, and fed all-organic hay. They were brought to Montreal to be slaughtered and koshered under the supervision of two Vaad Ha’ir (MK) rabbis, although the meat was not certified as MK kosher.
But the cost of paying the high price of meat from an ethically raised animal is a big deterrent. The lamb chops Canter sold cost $23 a pound, and a rack of lamb cost $24. While he did sell them, he said he can’t do it again unless there’s more demand.
“As a Jewish community and in the larger Canadian community, we need to assess where we’re spending our money and how we’re spending our money. We complain that we pay too much for food, but historically we spend the least amount of our budget on food,” Canter said. “If we’re spending twice as much money on our clothing as our food, do we value our clothing more than food?”
He believes it’s time for priorities to change. “For myself, I know that most of my high school life, my priorities were to make money, have a nice car, live a nice life. But then I grew my own food, and I felt what it was like to eat a tomato I grew myself,” Canter said.
“I saw a landfill – we took 10 people, and saw where all the things we throw away go. [Priorities can only change] through first person experience – you have to make that decision yourself. All I can do is show you the door… But by seeing the other lifestyle, seeing that it is possible, that it’s not a dream, you can live connected to the way you eat.”