These days, food justice is at the forefront of American consciousness. But back in the mid-1980s, years if not decades ahead of its time, Just Harvest pioneered a dynamic anti-hunger organization in Pittsburgh. By linking local poverty with global food challenges – they are talking about food deserts before it was even a term – and combining holistic direct service with education and advocacy, they have become one of the country’s most important food justice organizations.
Over the past 30 years, Just Harvest has stayed true to its core principles that food is a fundamental right and that all people – regardless of their background or circumstances – are entitled to “dignity, rights, and a voice in the policies that affect them.” At the ground level, they help connect low income families to public services like food stamps and school meals, and help foster increased access to healthy, fresh foods within underserved neighborhoods. They also are a resource for individuals and families who need subsidized help with income tax preparation.
On the advocacy level, they lobby and educate on these same issues – childhood hunger, a compassionate approach to benefits, and healthy food access. “Some people see us as mostly an organization that directly helps low income people,” said co-founder and Executive Director, Ken Regal. “But our roots are in policy.”
Just Harvest partners with neighboring organizations, following an “it takes a village” stance when it comes to food justice work. “If we are going to maximize our impact as an organization, that necessitates working really closely with lots of other people,” Regal said. “Fortunately, that’s easy because the other people doing this work are usually really easy to hang with.”
They work with farmer’s market managers on EBT projects and with community health centers on promoting healthy food choices and options. They partner with Pittsburgh organization 412 Food Rescue around issues of food waste, food rescue and distribution. They also work with Repair the World’s Pittsburgh fellows on volunteer recruitment and community outreach as well as food rescue work and community gardening projects. “Repair the World has a cohort of highly motivated, smart, curious young people who want to be engaged on these issues,” Regal said. “If we can work with them to advance their mission and ours, then that’s great.
Religion does not factor prominently into Regal’s professional life – Just Harvest is a secular organization that works with people across all walks of life. But personally speaking, Jewish tradition is a main driving force behind Regal’s work. “One of my main motivating influences is a commitment to Jewish social values and the idea that charity is not this thing you do simply out of goodness. It is not a choice,” he said. “It’s a fundamental obligation that we do these things and treat others well because we ourselves were slaves in Egypt. That’s all the incentive I need.”
Looking to the future, Regal said that Just Harvest is keeping a close eye on the major challenges that come with the political environment being created by the current administration. “We are basically waiting for the other shoe to drop, which means extreme funding cuts that would create a major threat to the federal safety net that exists for poor people,” he said. “It may be harder and more complicated than anything we’ve faced in a generation, but we are going to fight tooth and nail.”