Learning More About The Interfaith Sustainable Food Collaborative

steve-schwartzBringing Disparate Religious Congregations Together Over a (Locally/Sustainably Grown) Meal: An interview with Steve Schwartz, Executive Director, Interfaith Sustainable Food Collaborative

How do you accomplish such an ambitious mission?

We help people start community gardens, CSA (Community Supported Agriculture farms) relationships with local farms, and we help people who are working on these types of food system projects network with other congregations. For instance, there is a Lutheran church in Santa Rosa who is interested in learning about how to support local food – there might not be a Lutheran congregation in the same area, but there might be a local Buddhist or Jewish congregation that is doing something similar and can help. Our first conference was in April with 25 congregations represented, including Jews, Muslims, Christians, and Buddhists.

You’ve approached building a sustainable food system from just about every angle – what made you decide to approach this work through faith-based communities?

When I look at the Civil Rights movement, it happened because of churches and synagogues working together. On the other hand, the environmental movement and sustainable agriculture community has not, historically, worked with faith-based communities in a major way. There are a huge number of advocates on Capitol Hill working for faith-based groups. If we can leverage our voice there, we can be much more powerful.

What is the connection between sustainable food and faith?

Taking care of the earth is part of several religious traditions. There is a principal in Judaism called “tikkun olam” that means helping to repair the natural world. Not using herbicides is one way to repair the world.

When religious communities come together to celebrate a holiday, they sanctify the moment over a meal of their best foods, and reflect their values through the act of eating. When you think about it, does buying a bunch of donuts in a plastic-covered container from a big box store really reflect our values? Is this the best we’ve got to share after a prayer service?

Why did you want a fiscal sponsor?

In the short term, we were going to be doing some grant fundraising. We thought it would put people’s minds at ease to know that we were going to be running a tight ship, fiscally. And long term, looking at where we wanted to be in 5-10 years, fiscal sponsorship seemed like a cost-effective way to make sure we were getting first class services. It just made sense.

How did you choose TCI?

I knew a couple of other groups that were working with TCI, and had heard that TCI had a personal approach and experience working with government grants. We also wanted a fiscal sponsor where fiscal sponsorship is the primary focus so that we would be a priority.

What is the hardest part of your job?

We are at a stage where we need to be doing outreach to help our programs get a reputation for success, and meanwhile we have to be fundraising to cover the electricity bill. Striking a balance between the two is hard.

What do you love about your job?

Being able to talk to folks who are passionate about food and faith, and watching people realize that they have a lot in common, even if they worship differently.

What do you hope to accomplish next?

We are currently helping new congregations in Sonoma and Marin set up relationships with local farms. Twenty congregants who join a CSA can be 30% of a small farm’s revenue, and it also helps a congregation connect and think about what else they can be doing in terms of healing or stewarding the earth.

We are focused on Sonoma and Marin – there are more than 400 congregations here, but we are also working on national policy. We would like to enable people through their local congregations to have a bigger impact on moving towards a local, sustainable food system.

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