Judy Wicks, a longtime local champion of sustainable communities, will share her expertise at the second annual Hazon Philadelphia Jewish Food Festival coming up this weekend on the Main Line.
Thirty years ago, you would be hard-pressed to find local produce in area restaurants or even places like the Reading Terminal Market. But in the 1980s, drawing on her only prior experience in sustainable food systems as a national service program volunteer in a remote Alaskan Eskimo village, Judy Wicks developed a network of local farmers to supply the ingredients for her University City restaurant, White Dog Café.
Way ahead of her time then, Wicks continues to champion local, sustainable food sources and collaborates with countless other groups now helping to build momentum for that same vision. This weekend, the 67-year-old brings her expertise to the second annual Hazon Philadelphia Jewish Food Festival, a daylong culinary celebration featuring discussions, cooking demonstrations, seminars and a large shuk at Adath Israel in Merion Station.
In keeping with Hazon’s mission of promoting food systems grounded in sustainability, Wicks will deliver a keynote speech concerning, as she puts it, “preparing the community for the inevitable consequences of climate change.”
“It’s an urgency,” said Wicks, sitting at the kitchen table of her rustic Fitler Square home, a few hours after returning from her seventh journey to Cuba. “We need to wake people up.”
Hazon, a national environmental organization with offices in New York, Connecticut and California, has been working to build up its Philadelphia presence in recent years by hosting bike rides, a Sukkot farm-to-table meal, a Lag B’Omer barbecue and other events. More than 300 people attended the inaugural food festival last year, making it Hazon's largest local endeavor to date.
It’s “an amazing community-wide event that brings together hundreds of people to explore the connections between food, culture, justice, sustainability and Judaism,” explained Nati Passow, a graduate of Akiba Hebrew Academy (now Barrack) who coordinates programs for Hazon-Philadelphia and also directs the Jewish Farm School.
While plenty of people are clearly interested in sustainable food sources now, back in the mid-’80s, Wicks was largely on her own when she decided to distinguish the restaurant she had opened on the first floor of her then home by sourcing the best, freshest food from the area.
Initially, she said, developing a network of family farmers to supply the White Dog seemed like a “competitive advantage.” She hired chef Aliza Green “specifically because she was already starting to buy from local farmers,” such as Judy and Mark Dornstreich, who coincidentally all happened to be Jewish. Taking cues from indigenous cultures such as the Alaskan Eskimos, however, Wicks swiftly transformed her focus from being the best to embracing a system of connectedness and cooperation between citizens and businesses — a model grounded in sustainable and fair practices for all. As she described it, she began making business decisions “from the heart” rather than “from the head.”
Her contributions to a more cooperative community did not stop on White Dog’s front stoop. Wicks, who grew up in a small town just north of Pittsburgh and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English from Lake Erie College in Painesville, Ohio, (or, as she calls it, “Lake College for Eerie Women”), went on to create a number of forward-thinking programs for small businesses and underprivileged communities. For example, in 2000, she founded Fair Food Philly, forming a direct link between regional farmers and city consumers long before it was common practice for Philadelphians to embrace a local food system. Soon after, in 2001, she founded the Sustainable Business Network of Greater Philadelphia and the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies, which helps small businesses wishing to operate under a similarly thoughtful and just mindset.
Most recently, she’s been touring to promote her latest book, Good Morning, Beautiful Business: The Unexpected Journey of an Activist.
From Wicks’ perspective, Philadelphia’s greatest challenge to achieving self-reliance is a lack of arable land due to unyielding suburban sprawl that gobbles up more and more viable farmland. She believes that people should live in densely populated cities, like Philadelphia, and reserve the outlying areas for farmland.
Not only do we need more farms, she said, we also need more young farmers to learn the trade. Further, she calls for entrepreneurs to embrace the task of preserving local harvests by processing and distributing produce-based foods such as pickles, jams and even hummus, so that society may grow accustomed to relying less and less on outside sources.
But she also acknowledges major positive shifts in local food practices that she’s witnessed in the 30-plus years since she opened White Dog. (She sold the restaurant in 2009 under a unique agreement to ensure continuation of sustainable practices.) Thanks to the mainstreamed nature of local food sourcing practices in restaurants, more farmers are able to dispense their product more easily across the Delaware Valley through distributors like Common Market and Farm to City.
Wicks also points out the number of gardens she’s noticed at public schools, which she would like to see become the norm at elementary schools.
“We must teach kids to grow and cook food,” she said, referencing her trip to Cuba as inspiration, where she saw young students there learn how to identify medicinal plants and wild herbs in order to encourage independence and oneness with the earth.
Though Wicks grew up Presbyterian, she said she’s long admired the Jewish community’s work toward sustainability and stays connected to some of those like-minded individuals through her well-attended annual Freedom Seder.
“The Jewish community has been instrumental in progressive issues,” she said.
In addition to Wicks’ keynote, the festival will include several new sessions focused on different aspects of the Shmita, or sabbatical farm year. Leaders from a variety of organizations such as The Food Trust will also discuss building partnerships — faith-based or otherwise — to improve food justice and create sustainable community food systems.
Passow says he’s especially excited about the Thanksgiving-centric sessions, including one on preparing a vegan turkey as well as a cooking demonstration by Grow and Behold, a Brooklyn-based kosher meat purveyor specializing in pastured, ethically raised animal products. While most of the sessions are geared toward adults, there will also be a variety of activities specifically for children.
IF YOU GO
Liberty, Food and Justice for All: The 2nd Annual Hazon Philadelphia Jewish Food Festival
Sunday, Nov. 16, from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Congregation Adath Israel
250 N. Highland Ave., Merion Station
For tickets and more information: call 877-537-6286 or visit this website.