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Religious forum explores justice issues linking immigration and food supplies

From the raids on Iowa plant workers to sustainability issues, Sunday’s faith forum offered a chance to hear and discuss wide-ranging, religious-based perspectives on food-related controversies of the day.

When Rabbi Morris Allen visited the Agriprocessors meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa, in March 2006, he knew nothing about the plant’s immigrant employees or their working conditions. He was simply looking for a new source to supply the Twin Cities with kosher meat.

What he saw at the plant, however, led him to reconsider what it meant to be kosher.

“We didn’t think as Jews we could accept getting food that was technically kosher but did not meet the ethical standards that we as Jews hold as well,” he said Sunday to a group of about a hundred people at Faith Mennonite Church in Minneapolis.

After his visit to Postville, he began working on Hekhsher Tzedek, a campaign to address employee working conditions and other ethical issues within the kosher meat industry — well before U.S. immigration authorities raided that same plant, arrested hundreds of undocumented workers and put Postville in the national spotlight on the immigration debate.

Rabbi Allen was the first of four speakers at the forum “Immigration and Food Justice: A Multi-Faith Dialog.” Last year, Faith Mennonite Church held a dialogue on the Michael Pollan book “In Defense of Food,” which addresses food sustainability issues. The church wanted to continue that discussion, and others at the congregation were interested in immigration issues, so they decided to look at how the two topics might intersect.

“We personally don’t have the answers to these questions,” said Michael Bischoff, one of the event’s organizers, “but I think it’s important to have a dialogue.” Four speakers from different faiths were invited to provide their perspective.

Reginaldo Haslett-Marroquin spoke after Rabbi Allen. Haslett-Marroquin runs the Rural Enterprise Center, which helps Latinos in rural Minnesota through various initiatives, including a free-range poultry cooperative.

“We’re not growing chickens; we’re growing ideas,” Haslett-Marroquin said. “We’re growing infrastructure.”

The project attempts to harness the small-scale, sustainable farming skills that many Latino immigrants already have. “We’re getting people out of the job force and into the entrepreneurial practices so the resources stay in those families.”

University of St. Thomas theology professor Tisha M. Rajendra then addressed immigration and food sustainability from a Christian perspective. “We are dependent on those who pick our vegetables, who till the soil,” she said, but added that our current system “hides the people from us and obscures our relationship with them,” which is “contrary to how God wants us to live.”

The crowd then heard from Owais Bayunus, president of the Islamic Center of Minnesota. Bayunus talked about raising awareness of Muslim dietary restrictions and touched on such recent controversies as the group of Somali airport taxi drivers who didn’t want to transport passengers carrying alcohol.

The forum did not lead to any concrete solutions or conclusions, but it did meet Bischoff’s goal of “having a community dialogue about sustainable food in a fresh way.” Furthermore, it highlighted links between people of different faiths on these issues.

After the initial round of introductory speeches, Rabbi Allen and Bayunus got into a discussion on the connections between Jewish and Muslim dietary laws, and how some college cafeterias are even offering food that is both kosher and Halal, that is, permissible according to Islam.

Haslett-Marroquin perked up, thinking of his own poultry project, and said, to laughter, “I think I just hit a business opportunity!”