Growing up in Tucson during the 1950s, Robert Morris, Jr. learned about the importance of fresh vegetables from a local Jewish peddler. “When I was elementary school age Toby would let me ride on his truck for a few blocks,” says Morris. Today, fresh vegetables have often disappeared from inner city neighborhoods.
Morris will discuss that “food desert” at the Jewish Community Relations Council Annual Meeting and Food Stamp Challenge Kick-Off, “Working Together to End Hunger.” The luncheon event will take place on Thursday Oct. 27 at noon at Temple Emanu-El.
Attendees may take the community-wide Food Stamp Challenge, committing to spending $31.50 — the average food-stamp allotment — for meals for one week.
“The [dietary] needs of the poor are the same as they were in the ’50s, mostly fresh vegetables,” says Morris, a fourth-generation Tucsonan who recalls “Native American, Hispanic, African American and a few Jewish families” in his poor neighborhood on Meyer Street, where there was no indoor plumbing.
Morris, who now lives in the Bay area, is vice president of business development and investor relations of Living PlanIt, an international company that focuses on improving the quality of life through technology and making cities more sustainable.
Fifty percent of the world’s population lives in cities; that number will increase to 70 percent by 2050, says Morris, adding that “cities are ill-equipped to support” those numbers. The Farm Bill of 2008 increased food assistance for families struggling with rising food costs, he notes, but it’s difficult to wean people off the $1 value menu at fast food chains.
The lack of nutritional food “is an economic issue,” Morris told the AJP. “In inner city neighborhoods supermarkets are five or six miles away because of safety, pilferage and food stamps. They’ve been replaced by fast food places, which provide little nutritional value.”
Plus, the farming industry has changed dramatically over the years. “All foods are genetically modified, especially livestock, wheat products and vegetables. Seed products are genetically engineered, or altered, to be grown faster and in greater quantities. And they don’t have to be labeled as such,” he says. “The FDA and chemical companies started trading seats on boards. It’s all very incestuous.
“There’s been a dramatic shift in the number of chemical corporations, not farmers, controlling what we put in our bodies,” says Morris.
Public, private and nonprofit elements “have been in conflict. They all need to align to help a large segment of the population who are malnourished,” he asserts. “We’re all in this together.”
Morris, who is African American, experienced that collaboration when he learned about Judaism as a teenager. He got a job as a stock boy at Dave Bloom & Sons men’s clothing store on Congress Street, and sometimes went to synagogue with the Blooms. “I came to understand the connection between oppressed people,” says Morris. “The compassion of the Jewish community in Tucson and ‘Never Again’ [referring to the Holocaust] didn’t just apply to the Jewish population.
“All my business acumen grew out of my mentorship with the Blooms,” he says. “I found social mobility, fairness and honesty in the Jewish community at a time when I wasn’t welcome in other places.”
Morris went on to receive a degree in business at Arizona State University in 1973, and was recruited by Proctor & Gamble “to be the Jackie Robinson of business in Montana and northern Colorado where they had never seen a black person. I was going to have to stand up to a lot of stuff.”
During his career, Morris has worked for such companies as Revlon, IBM and Unisys, and has lived in 21 locales including New York, Denver and London. Still, he says, “Tucson will always emotionally be home. I look forward to being home” for the JCRC event on Oct. 27.
Donna Beyer will receive the 2011 JCRC Margie Fenton Award at the annual meeting. Beyer has served as the national Jewish Council for Public Affairs vice chair and past chair of the JCRC of the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona. She helped create the local Jewish-Presbyterian Dialogue, has promoted Holocaust education in Tucson’s public schools and worked on multi-faith border issues.
Jonathan Rothschild, outgoing JCRC chair will be recognized at the event and Eric Schindler, incoming JCRC chair, will be welcomed.
Tickets for the luncheon are $18 each. For more information about the Food Stamp Challenge or to RSVP for the event by Oct. 24, contact Jane Scott at 577-9393 or jscott @jfsa.org, or visit jewishtucson.org.