North Bay’s Interfaith Sustainable Food Collaborative expands to include East Bay

The collaborative works to help faith groups connect their values to local food systems.|

In the back of Sonoma’s Faith Lutheran Church, five different kinds of tomatoes are growing. Watermelons, too, their great vines stretching out alongside summer squashes, zucchinis and pumpkins. There are casaba melons and string beans. Chinese snow peas and scarlet runner beans climb up a ?12-foot conical trellis, their pods dripping into its center.

The 2,500-square-foot garden produces up to 100 pounds of summertime produce a week, a bounty shared with various nonprofits around town like La Luz Center, or handed out in grocery bags to anyone who asks.

“We can go sit in church and do all the things that we do in church, say our prayers,” said Jim Griewe, who has run the year-round garden for the Arnold Drive church since 2012. “It doesn’t mean anything, really, unless when you walk out of church, you continue the practical application of that ministry. This gives us the chance to do that.”

Faith Lutheran is just one of more than 150 congregations in Sonoma and Marin counties that have engaged with the Interfaith Sustainable Food Collaborative, a group started by Sebastopol mushroom farmer Steve Schwartz five years ago this summer. The idea: help faith groups connect with their local food systems through their values.

This spring, the group officially spread to incorporate congregations in Contra Costa and Alameda counties, where already 35 congregations have reached out to learn more about the project.

“In every faith community, you have a lot of people - hopefully the majority - saying, ‘How do I put my beliefs into action? How do I act on my values?’?” Schwartz said.

That’s where the collaborative steps in. Sometimes, it’s connecting congregates to CSAs, or community-supported agriculture programs, which benefit local farmers by providing a reliable paycheck for regular produce box deliveries. In other cases, it’s expanding an existing pantry to include locally grown food, which helps Faith Lutheran parishioners like Griewe connect more deeply to their faith.

Other times, still, it means bringing a produce stand to faith sites and using U.S. Department of Agriculture grant funds to open access to CalFresh users, like at St. Andrew’s-in-the-Redwoods Episcopal Church in Monte Rio or at Santa Rosa’s Greater Powerhouse Church of God in Christ.

It’s all part of a larger national movement to connect faith groups with local agriculture communities to promote food security.

Jewish environmental organization Hazon has long promoted the idea of congregations taking part in local farmer CSAs, and the Presbyterian Hunger Program encourages communities to think about and strengthen their food economies through similar means.

“Congregations will say, ‘Hey, creation care - we want to care for God’s earth, how are we going to put that into practice?’ Support a local organic farmer,” said Schwartz, who attends Congregation Shomrei Torah. Other congregations will say, “?‘We care about raising up immigrants and the stranger among us, how do we do that?’ Well, support a local farm like Laguna Farm where one of the owners is an immigrant who worked their way up from farmworker to owner.”

Schwartz got involved in the sustainable food movement after serving in the Peace Corps in Thailand, where he learned to grow mushrooms from a local tribe, but he was raised to be conscious of food insecurity by a Jewish father who was kicked off his Czechoslovakian farmland during World War II.

“He lived without food for a while as a young teenager, so looking back on it, he definitely instilled some of that focus that I have now, making sure people don’t go hungry,” Schwartz said.

That background informed Schwartz’s work in both the Peace Corps, and later, working for food policy advocacy organizations such as California FarmLink, which he founded, and the Community Alliance with Family Farmers.

Creating the Interfaith Sustainable Food Collaborative was a way for him to bridge his passion for advocacy with his faith.

For the Rev. Phina Borgeson, deacon of the Episcopal Diocese of Northern California, connecting the two is a matter of course.

Theologically, she said, the significance lies in a meditation on food, its symbolic importance within religions and understanding local food systems.

“One of the educational tests we need to keep working on is to keep making those connections,” she said. “To draw those connections out of people, to think more deeply about food system issues and also to think about the dignity of hungry people and the dignity of farmworkers and the dignity of other food system workers.

“I want to see us do more connecting the dots. Not just connecting the farmer and consumers and congregation, but also really drilling down into the theological and ethical stuff - to give people the reason why, in their faith tradition, they all want to be passionate about it.”

You can reach Staff Writer Christi Warren at 707-521-5205 or christi.warren@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @SeaWarren.

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