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Lessons from the New York Kosher Meat Boycott of 1902
by Nicholas Freudenberg
In the past few years, rising food prices have triggered demonstrations, riots, and even the overthrow of governments. Hikes in food prices played an important role in the removal of Tunisian President Ben Ali and his cohort in 2011, and in other Arab Spring uprisings. According to a recent report from the New England Complex Systems Institute, “high global food prices are a precipitating condition for social unrest.”
The combination of drought, speculation in food commodities, the rise of biofuels, rising fossil-fuel prices, and the increasing concentration of the global food industry has accelerated spikes in food prices. In the United States, rising fuel prices and the droughts and storms associated with climate change have also led to food price increases, expected to be 3 or 4 percent in 2013, higher than the inflation rate. Compared to other nations and earlier times, however, Americans spend less on food: just 6.9 percent of the average American household income, compared to more than 11 percent in Australia, 15 percent in South Korea, and 45 percent in Pakistan. In 1900, by comparison, the average American household spent more than 40 percent of its income on food.
Partly for these reasons, the U.S. food movement has not focused on the price of food, but on its nutritional quality and the environmental impact of food production. Yet the cost of food does play an important role in health in the U.S.: The higher cost of healthy foods such as fresh fruits and vegetables, and the lower cost of unhealthy products such as soda, snacks, and fast food contribute to our nation’s major problems of persistent food insecurity and rising rates of diet-related diseases such as diabetes. Should lowering the price of healthy food become a goal of the food movement?
To explore this question, let’s examine the New York City kosher meat boycott of 1902. In 1980, Professor Paula Hyman (1946-2011) of Yale University, a pioneer in the effort to reconcile feminism and Judaism, described the origins and actions of the 1902 boycott in American Jewish History. In early May of that year, she wrote,
the retail price of kosher meat had soared from twelve cents to eighteen cents a pound. Small retail butchers, concerned that their customers would not be able to afford their product, refused to sell the meat for a week to pressure the wholesalers (commonly referred to as the Meat Trust) to lower their prices. When their May 14th settlement with the wholesalers brought no reduction in the retail price of meat, Lower East Side housewives, milling in the street, began to call for a strike against the butchers. As one activist, Mrs. Levy, the wife of a cloakmaker, shouted, “This is their strike? Look at the good it has brought! Now, if we women make a strike, then it will be a strike.” Gathering support on the block . . . Mrs. Levy and Sarah Edelson, owner of a small restaurant, called a mass meeting to spread the word of the planned boycott.
The next day, after a neighborhood canvas staged by the organizing committee, thousands of women streamed through the streets of the Lower East Side, breaking into butcher shops, flinging meat into the streets, and declaring a boycott. “Women were the ringleaders at all hours,” noted the New York Herald. Customers who tried to carry their purchased meat from the butcher shops were forced to drop it . . . Within half an hour, the Forward reported, the strike had spread from one block through the entire area. Twenty thousand people were reported to have massed in front of the New Irving Hall. . . . About seventy women and fifteen men were arrested on charges of disorderly conduct.
Hyman describes the house-to-house organizing that strengthened the boycott. “Pickets were appointed to stand in front of each butcher shop. On each block, funds were collected to pay the fines of those arrested . . . and to reimburse those customers whose meat had been confiscated in the first day of rioting.” One hundred more were arrested, mostly women armed “with sticks, vocabularies, and well-sharpened nails. . . . Using the traditional communal tactic of interrupting Torah reading when a matter of justice was at stake,” the women interrupted services in synagogues to recruit men and rabbis to their cause.
The boycott spread to Brooklyn, Harlem, and the Bronx, as well as Newark, Philadelphia, and Boston. The Ladies’ Anti-Beef Trust Association was formed to coordinate activities. Its members visited labor groups, landsmanshaftn (benevolent organizations), and socialist organizations to seek support. Flyers with a skull and crossbones and the slogan, “Eat no meat while the Trust is taking meat from the bones of your women and children” were circulated. The Association also established coops to sell meat purchased elsewhere. “We are in communication with Philadelphia wholesalers and butchers, and where the kosher beef is killed and certified by the rabbi,” the secretary of the Association, Jacob Kirschberg, told the New York Times. “We believe that we can establish as many as two hundred stores on the east side, one located at every fifth block. Each customer will be a stockholder to the amount of his [sic] purchase. The price of meat will be 10 cents per pound and the profits on it will be divided among buyers.”
After several days, the Retail Butchers Association endorsed the boycott. Two weeks later, the strike was over and the price of wholesale meat had been reduced to nine cents a pound, the retail price to fourteen cents. These lower prices were not sustained, but the boycott did show the power of women to organize within the consumer marketplace and win allies. A few years later, women and labor organizations would be organizing rent strikes on the Lower East Side, using the meat boycott as a model — and still later, other consumer groups in New York and elsewhere would organize boycotts related to food prices, some of which were endorsed by progressive politicians such as Mayor Fiorello La Guardia.
What are the lessons from these boycotts for today’s food activists? First, food justice can be a powerful impetus for civic action. Organizing to remove public subsidies from unhealthy products (such as corn, sugar and high-fructose corn syrup), and providing subsidies instead for healthier goods (such as whole grains and fresh fruits and vegetables) can be a plausible strategy to help reduce food insecurity and diet-related disease.
Second, the 1902 boycott suggests the possibility of making new alliances. At times, the kosher butchers and the women activists were in conflict, but at other points they joined forces to confront the Meat Trust, the main source of higher prices. Organizers also reached out to labor, religious, socialist and community organizations to stitch together a powerful coalition. Imagine an alliance of bodega and small grocery store owners, neighborhood associations, and food activists that mobilized to bring healthier, more affordable food into urban neighborhoods? Could progressive forces unite to end the austerity policies that have led Congress to cut food benefits such as SNAP (formerly known as Food Stamps) and WIC, the program that provides food to pregnant women, new mothers, and small children? Could small store owners, farmers, and anti-hunger advocates join forces to launch a new campaign to enroll the one-in-four Americans who are eligible for SNAP but are not receiving benefits, in order expand the market for affordable, healthy food? Such a campaign could also shift the SNAP dollars that now subsidize Coke, Pepsi, Kraft, Kellogg’s, and other Big Food companies towards the regional farmers whose crops could be sold in urban markets if the proper transportation and food processing infrastructure existed.
Third, the kosher meat boycott shows the power of women to use and transform their roles as wives and mothers to become political activists fighting for their own rights and the well-being of their community. In the past, women have invigorated and expanded — and also criticized — the civil rights, environmental justice, and labor movements. Could new alliances — and debates — between the women’s movement and the food justice movement create new opportunities for expanding each other?
Finally, the kosher meat boycott shows the potential for food to stir up activism and the power of ethnic identity to mobilize communities for change. Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, Chinese, African-Americans, Russians, and Indians each have strong cultural ties to their diet and food. Each group is also constrained by our food system’s domination by a few corporations, which seek to homogenize our diets with processed foods high in fat, sugar, and salt that contribute to premature death and preventable illness. By looking for new ways to bring together the diverse constituencies that would benefit from a healthier food system, the food justice movement has the opportunity to write the next chapter in creating a food system that supports well-being.
Nicholas Freudenberg is Distinguished Professor of Public Health at Hunter College and the City University of New York, and co-directs the New York City Food Policy Center at Hunter College.