Founding executive director of Interfaith Sustainable Food Collaborative.

Steve Schwartz is a local food systems advocate with more than 25 years of professional leadership working with farmers and farm policy to advance sustainable agriculture. The founder of California FarmLink, which he directed for 13 years, Steve worked to provide access to land and financing for beginning and immigrant farmers. The first staff person for the Community Alliance with Family Farmers’ Rural Policy Council, Steve is involved in farmland access and preservation as well as affordable financing alternatives for family farmers.

Steve founded the Interfaith Sustainable Food Collaborative in late 2011, having served as chief of staff to two state Assembly members and having worked on four Farm Bills. Given the international unrest in the name of organized religions and the consensus building that has sometimes been an unlikely and happy result, we thought it a good time to check in with Steve about his organization’s work.

Michael B. Woolsey Photography

Why is sustainable food important to faith groups and interfaith work? It seems that there are so many other topics and troubles to address.

When I look at the big civil rights battles, I see faith-based groups were at the forefront of the struggles. What social movement has succeeded without the support of faith communities?

The sustainable and local food movement needs faith-based partners, as other movements have in the past. When we work on practical solutions to challenges with the food system, people come together across faith lines who otherwise wouldn’t. There is a long tradition of faith groups putting their beliefs into action by working on food access. We’ve seen that, as congregations engage in supporting food justice and organic farmers, they re-engage younger members of their congregations who are passionate about these issues. This includes millennials, soccer moms, and others. 

How does the Interfaith Sustainable Food Collaborative specifically impact community?

In Sonoma County, there are some 375 faith-based congregations that gather regularly. These are each diverse communities with members committed to reflecting their values in the ways they act in the world. Social justice and care for the earth are a focus for many. Grassroots leaders in these faith communities build on long-standing relationships within their congregations to advance projects like Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), community gardens or gleaning. The Interfaith Sustainable Food Collaborative partners with these congregations to empower them and to share successes across faith lines. We work to make sure the best local food is accessible to all. This supports the environment and local economy, including small-scale farmers. We pioneer innovative programs to provide incentives to low-income people to buy from local farmers’ CSAs.

What are the joys or accomplishments of this project?

We all are aware of the history of religious conflict. I’ve seen how hungry people are to work together across faith lines to focus on an area of common interest: Sustainability and local food access.

I’ve seen warm relationships develop or deepen when people of different faiths share successes and problem-solve about projects. Also, I’ve learned about how all of these faith traditions have sacred texts and modern traditions that support connections to land, the seasons, and health, which inform how people of faith can think about food and agriculture locally today. 

A concrete success is that our first conference in 2013 led to what is likely the first masjid (mosque) in the nation to connect with a local farm through a CSA relationship. This helps engage Muslim families with local, healthful food while boosting the revenue of a small family farm’s bottom line. 

If you had your druthers, the ISFC would be . . .

As the Interfaith Sustainable Food Collaborative grows, I hope that all of the national religious bodies use their strength as allies to support community food systems, justice for farmers and farm workers, ecological agriculture, and stewardship of the earth.

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