Leaving the corners of our fields:
A Jewish approach to hunger in a modern world

One could not help but be moved by the headline: "Down on the farm, a frenzy over free food." According to the article in the Denver Post, on November 23, 2008

40,000 people flooded to a Weld County, CO farm to collect free potatoes, carrots and leeks. Reporter Allison Sherry explained that the Miller family decided to give away their unharvested produce at the end of their fall festival before it would be ruined by a deep freeze. While there is a uniquely American enthusiasm for anything free, this rush to collect leeks before frost is just one of many indicators that food insecurity is a growing problem. While clergy often have to maneuver to make biblical means of distribution of wealth relevant to their congregation, there is more than an echo of biblical times in the events at the Miller's farm.

The injunction to leave the corners of the fields legislates farming techniques for an agricultural, pre-industrial society over two millennia ago. Scripture teaches:

When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare or gather the fallen grapes of the vineyard. You shall leave them for the poor and the stranger... (Leviticus 19:9-10)

In Misnah Pe'ah on this passage, Maimonides explains the full intent of this rule. Not only is the command in order to provide food, but the food must be left in a way that its collection is convenient and dignified for the poor or the stranger. Maimonides teaches that corners should be left at the very end of the fields so that the poor can gather the crops in anonymity and so they know exactly where to go to attain the produce that is there. He clarifies that the farmer should not waste the time of the hungry by forcing them to wait until he designates a specific area. Passers by should be able to see that the farmer has fulfilled his obligation. This system allows those in need a convenient way of accessing food with anonymity and also provides public accountability for fulfilling the obligation.

Today, there is little anonymity available to the hungry. There is not a public sense of urgency to prevent hunger, food insecurity is a global problem effecting even developed nations. As a result of the U.N.'s efforts to address the food crisis, Andrew Martin of the New York Times reports, "For the two billion poorest people in the world, many of whom spend half or more of their income on food, rising grain prices can quickly become life threatening. The broader risk is that rising food prices could spread hunger and generate political instability in low-income countries that import grain, such as Indonesia, Egypt, Nigeria and Mexico." (Martin, 5/29/2008)

While there are many causes responsible for the recent jump in food prices, overuse of energy is thought to have some responsibility for current global hunger. The Times explains, "Biofuel production should account for about a third of the expected increases in prices for vegetable oils and grains" (Martin, 5/30/2008). Only six months after the global summit on the food crisis, we see biblical technology providing food in one of the world's wealthiest nation. The monumental words of John Steinbeck ring true even today: "Men who have created new fruits in the world cannot create a system whereby their fruits may be eaten." While the biblical ideas alone cannot address the problems faced by today's global economy, the imperative to hold all citizens responsible for addressing hunger continues to be tragically relevant.

(Anna Levin Rosen, HUC-JIR: Cincinnati)