Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Community Gardens, Love Feasts & Chicken Coops: Organizing Around Food Justice

Hey friends! So I'm still in the midst of posting working from my recently completed final semester at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia. The following paper was written for an interfaith class with rabbinical students on the concept of Food Justice. It primarily concerns faith-based community organizing as a means to solve local issues of hunger and food sovereignty. Especially as this is an important issue in the Upstate NY Synod of the ELCA (the ELCA is the big national church body I belong to) where I'll hopefully be called to serve soon, it's something that is extremely important to me. Have you had success organizing around food justice in your faith community? I'd love to hear about it!

God's peace,

Food is a big deal! Let me flesh that statement out a little bit… whether we recognize it as such or not, food is a really, really big deal in the lives of believers and nonbelievers alike. Food is a big deal, and in fact, it’s a centrally organizing element of human life. When we gather with friends, with long-missed loved ones, or even to discuss business transactions, we usually gather around food. Dinners together are an important way many folks share stories or live out being a family. Whether it be over the prayerful ritual of shabbat meals or participating in the gift of the Eucharist every Sunday, food is a central organizing element of both the Jewish and Christian faiths as well. Food is central to how we live. Food is central to how we love. Food is central to how we experience the Divine. Food is a really big deal!

At the same time, we all too often harm ourselves, our neighbors and our planet by not comprehending the immense scope of the food system in all its intricacies and treating food with the reverent care it deserves. This happens in our faith communities, even when we think we’re fully engaged with issues of food and hunger quite intentionally. Using my own life as an example, I’ve been of course eating my entire life, and since moving away to college I’ve tried with varying degrees of success to eat organic, local and (a bit) lower on the food chain. I’ve also been involved with social justice work regarding hunger since at least my senior year of high school, during which I organized an educational luncheon regarding the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s World Hunger Appeal as an Eagle Scout project. Not longer after, as a Lutheran summer camp counselor I was critiqued for being “too political” after encouraging my middle school aged campers to urge their congressional representatives to fully fund the Millennium Challenge Account. Finally, since beginning seminary four years ago I’ve spent a great deal of time thinking about how the liturgical act of the Eucharist informs my Christian faith. At least on a deeper, emotional, and spiritual level, however, I never really considered all these things as particularly related.

While I suppose in an intellectual sense I understood the connection between the role of food in my personal life, my public life and my faith life, it was not really until participating in an interfaith Food Justice course this semester that I truly began experiencing that connection. Quite specifically, it was our engagement with Jewish theological understandings of food that moved me toward this point. Many of the Christians I know are pretty good at thinking theologically about feeding hungry people, caring for creation and celebrating the Eucharist, but on the level of personal piety and understanding one’s sacred connection to God and neighbor through food, perhaps due to the influence of kashrut practices on everyday life, it seems like we have much to learn from our Jewish sisters and brothers. This fact first struck me when reading about the Jewish theological justification for giving a blessing before enjoying a meal:
Our Rabbis have taught: It is forbidden for a man to enjoy anything of this world without a blessing, and if anyone enjoys anything of this world without a blessing, he commits sacrilege. What is his remedy? He should consult a wise man. But what will the wise man do for him? He has already committed the offense! Raba said: What this means is that he should consult a wise man beforehand, so that he would teach him blessings, so that he should not commit sacrilege (me’ilah).
All of creation is God’s, we are only recipients of its bounty as a Divine gift (Psalm 24:1). We should therefore acknowledges God’s creation, and thus our human reliance upon Her many blessings, in order to not commit me’ilah, or to in other words to steal from God.

The Jewish notion of our personal reliance upon God for the bounty of creation isn’t necessarily different from a traditional Christian understanding of food, but it does seem to hold a place of greater emphasis. For example, I found it immensely profound that while learning about various food justice issues this semester, our conversations were always grounded in discussing our own experiences with food over the previous week, something that rarely happens in other seminary courses. Celebrating shabbat over a beautifully prayerful and ritualized (yet actual!) meal in the home is also indicative of a greater Jewish emphasis on the sacredness and power of food, especially when shared in community. It is important to note that early Christians shared this emphasis, as ancient forms of the Eucharist were likely celebrated over an actual meal often referred to as an “agape love feast.” Saint Paul points to both this practice and the reasons for its eventual demise in 1 Corinthians 11:
Now in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse. For, to begin with, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you; and to some extent I believe it. Indeed, there have to be factions among you, for only so will it become clear who among you are genuine. When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s supper. For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk. What! Do you not have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What should I say to you? Should I commend you? In this matter I do not commend you!… So then, my brothers and sisters, when you come together to eat, wait for one another. If you are hungry, eat at home, so that when you come together, it will not be for your condemnation (1 Corinthians 11:17-22, 33).
Although the Eucharist was often celebrated as (or alongside) the actual meal of a “agape love feast” in the first few centuries of Christian history, this practice was increasingly condemned as leading to over-indulgence, and in some cases, to the neglect of poor Christians who couldn't afford the copious amounts of food and wine involved.

In his Confessions, Saint Augustine discusses how his mother used to bring food and wine to celebrations of the Eucharist until her efforts were condemned by Saint Ambrose, the Archbishop of Milan:
It had been my mother’s custom in Africa to take meal-cakes and bread and wine to the shrines of the saints on their memorial days, but the door-keeper would not allow her to do this in Milan. When she learned that the bishop had forbidden it, she accepted his ruling with such pious submission that I was surprised to see how willingly she condemned her own practice rather than dispute his command… she willingly ceased this custom when she found that this great preacher, this holy bishop, had forbidden such ceremonies event to those who performed them with sobriety, both for freer that to some they might be occasions for drunkenness and also because they bore so close a resemblance to the superstitious rites which the pagans held in honor of their dead. Instead of her basket full of the fruits of the earth she learned to bring to the shrines of the martyrs a heart full of prayers far purer than any of these gifts. In this way she was able to give what she could to the poor and the Communion of the Lord’s Body was celebrated at the shrines of the saints…
By separating an actual meal from the liturgical act of the Meal, the celebration of the Eucharist, the Church Fathers were indeed freeing up additional resources to assist folks living in poverty, as well as protecting their flocks from gluttony. Given that particular context, discouraging the ancient Christian practice of the “agape love feast” was at least logical, and perhaps even wise for a time. Taking a cue from our Jewish sisters and brothers and given our current historical context however, in a time when hundreds of millions of people live without regular access to safe and nutritious food, and those who do have access often eat overly processed, bleached, preservative drenched crap called food because of a lack of choice or inability to pay for more expense alternatives, one must wonder if not actually sharing a meal when we celebrate the Meal still makes any liturgical sense.

Perhaps due the lack of holistic and personal engagement with food in many Christian congregations, it was in fact through a conversation with some of my ardently secular friends that I truly started thinking specifically about the process of organizing for food justice. While planning out our Easter dinner up in New Hampshire earlier this semester, we began lamenting the place of utter desolation that is America’s conventional food system. I also brought up the ineffective ways many faith communities combat food insecurity, and eventually it occurred to us that in both regards, we’re living in atypical times. Realizing this led us to ask some silly but provocative questions… How did so many responsible adults in the Greatest Generation start thinking, “Wow, real whole grain bread is just not a good idea, let’s eat bleached Wonderbread instead!” or “Nope… we’re too modern and actual fruit juice will just no longer do… let’s raise our kids on a steady diet of Kool-Aid and Mountain Dew!” A few decades later, despite “rediscovering” poverty in America during the 1960s, how did so many well meaning Christians decide to start donating to food banks in an effort to combat hunger while continuing to vote for politicians who openly worked to eliminate successful food assistance programs? My friends and I weren’t sure whether we should laugh or cry. We also couldn’t help but ask some followup questions: “How did we become so detached from what we put in our bodies to nourish ourselves and our families?” and “How did we become so detached from the folks in our local communities and around the world who don’t know where their next meal will come from?” In the end, when our questions didn’t lead to any satisfying answers, we found ourselves getting pretty angry, but a good type of angry, a type of angry that freed us to begin envisioning alternatives.

As I discovered this past Easter, now that we’re almost eighty years into the era of industrialized food and almost thirty-five years after Reagan’s first inauguration, an initial step in empowering faith communities to deconstruct and rebuild the utter desolation that is our “conventional food system” is to simply remind folks it hasn’t always been this way. In Closing the Food Gap, Mark Winne points out that taken in the wider context of human history, our so called “conventional food system” is by no means conventional:
If food has a Middle Ages—a period when a dark curtain descended over its history—it certainly has to be the post-World War II era in the United States. It was the beginning of mankind’s descent into industrialized food production practices that emulated the same assembly-line technology that Henry Ford applied to the automobile. In the case of grain production for bread, the industrial model meant that a couple of varieties of wheat seeds were developed for the attributes that were so treasured in Wonder Bread. During the course of establishing this extremely limited range of wheat varieties, hundreds of other traditional varieties that had been bred for their ability to adapt to local conditions soon disappeared from use… Developments like these did produce a cheap loaf of bread. And unlike the aryl disciples of an alternative way—such as college hippies gnawing at unyielding crusts—most Americans were content with the perceived benefits that technology brought them.
Largely due to the immense pressures of growing up during the Great Depression only to face the horrors of the World War II, the Greatest Generation thoroughly embraced the security, convenience and cheap availability of bland, nutrient deficient food, to the point in fact that most of their Baby Boomer children and subsequent generations of Americans seemingly knew no alternative. The positive news in Winne’s statement however is that in denoting industrialized food as a “Middle Age,” he sees an alternative, healthier and more people-conscious food system taking shape.

Similarly, as David Beckmann profoundly notes in Exodus from Hunger, the current lack of political will to significantly lower rates of poverty and food insecurity in the United States is a relatively recent phenomenon:
The United States used to be a powerful poverty-reduction machine… During the New Deal and the Second World War, government policies and organized labor combined to create a broad middle class. During that period the rich got poorer, while workers got considerably richer… President Johnson’s Great Society programs have been much maligned. President Reagan later quipped that “we declared war on poverty, and poverty won.” But, in fact, the Great Society programs played an important role in reducing poverty in the 1960s and early 1970s… Nixon’s expansion of the national nutrition programs, for example, eliminated the kind of malnutrition we now associate with poor countries…Between 1959 and 1980 the proportion of elderly people in poverty dropped from 35 percent to 16 percent, almost entirely due to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.
Perhaps charismatic politicians like Ronald Reagan successfully redefined the traditional American value of “freedom from want” to “freedom from taxes,” or maybe Watergate and Vietnam simply decreased American faith in government. Whatever the reason for our current lack of can-do spirit to solve food insecurity as a systematic problem in our country (and to properly support our sisters and brothers in similar work around the world), helping folks to remember it hasn’t always been this way, and thereby creating space in which they can get angry, ask important questions and envision a better alternative is an important initial step in organizing to address the utter desolation that is our current conventional food system.

Christian liberation theology (and I imagine Jewish liberation theology as well), provides us with guidance on the next steps of organizing for food justice, namely in its emphasis on Christ’s preferential option for the poor and the power of personal narrative. As Gustavo Gutierrez, whom many would consider the founder of liberation theology, states in his seminal work A Theology of Liberation:
… the process of liberation requires the active participation of the oppressed; this certainly is one of the most important themes running through the writings of the Latin American Church. Based on the evidence of the usually frustrated aspirations of the popular classes to participate in decisions which affect all of society, the realization emerges that it is the poor who must be the protagonists of their own liberation.
Based upon his belief in Christ’s preferential option for the poor, Gutierrez locates Christ’s revelation in history primarily in the lives and stories of those suffering under oppression, which in our context would mean those suffering from food insecurity and other injustices brought about by our conventional food system.

A major role of the Church no matter the context however is to preach the good news of God’s liberating love in Christ to all individuals, and especially those living under oppression, so that they may both recognize their situation and God’s work in their lives to change it:
What the faith says about itself will demonstrate its relationship to the goal of the people who are struggling for the emancipation of others and of themselves. Indeed, an awareness of the need for self-liberation is essential to a correct understanding of the liberation process. It is not a matter of “struggling for others,” which suggests paternalism and reformist objectives, but rather of becoming aware of oneself as not completely fulfilled and as living in an alienated society.
Christ’s liberation in history is thereby manifest both externally and internally through the lives of individual believers and indeed all those in oppressed communities. Furthermore, while emancipating a community from an oppressive situation like our conventional food system is an external manifestation of liberation in Christ, the liberating self-agency that comes from the knowledge of Christ’s work in one’s life is an equally (if not more) important.
In the typically more secular language of community organizing, Saul Alinsky, whom many would consider the founder of modern community organizing in America, summarizes this point quite eloquently:
If people are organized with a dream of the future ahead of them, the actual planning that takes place in organizing and the hopes and the fears for the future give them just as much inner satisfaction as does their actual achievement… After all, the real democratic program is a democratically minded people - a healthy, active, participating, interested, self-confident people who, through their participation and interest, become informed, educated, and above all develop faith in themselves, their fellow men, and the future.
While the first step in organizing for food justice is to help communities remember our food system wasn’t always one of utter desolation, and thus that a better food system is possible, the second step is creating spaces where folks can share their stories and ask questions about how and why food insecurity exists in their local context. If we hold to Christ’s preferential option for the poor, and thus believe it is only the food insecure themselves who can achieve their own liberation, we must also recognize that the personal narratives of people living in food insecurity possess immense power. In creating spaces for folks facing food insecurity and related injustices to share their stories and begin identifying small changes that could greatly better their situation, communities can begin carefully cultivating allies to make those initial changes, which over time can build towards ever greater success and community empowerment.

Creating safe spaces for people living in food insecurity to share their stories on an equal footing with those privileged to have regular access to food is powerful way of moving all sorts of folks in our communities to begin connecting the role of food in different aspects of their lives. When a wealthy business executive picks up a pizza on her way home from work in order to put dinner on the table for her hungry family, does she recognize her intimate connection to the chain restaurant workers organizing for a living wage who made her pizza? Her young son offers a beautiful grace that evening, in which he prays for a healthy planet of great abundance for all God’s children. As the business executive lays down to sleep that night, she feels guilty about relying on takeout and prays for a way to work fewer hours in order to cook more nutritious meals with her husband (an activity she loves). How do the prayers of her and her son connect to those of the restaurant workers praying for a living wage? A few months later, inspired by a conversation she had over coffee hour at her local congregation, perhaps she joins the board of a local food bank. Does she use her business skills to simply address the immediate needs of hungry people in a patriarchal manner, or does she move the organization to begin advocating against the systematic injustices that create food insecurity?

When we create safe spaces for people like the business executive to engage in honest conversation with people living in food insecurity, and hence to reflect on their own stories regarding food, a relationship of mutual learning and accompaniment can begin to develop. Furthermore, the conversation that takes place in such spaces reminds us we’re all dependent on the bounty of God’s creation for our sustenance, and thus food can act as a great equalizer, cutting across all notions of class, social status or privilege. In a practical manner then, what would creating such spaces look like? First of all, accompanied by the folks we wish to help, we should prayerful examine and reform the traditional food bank model for engaging in food justice as faith communities. In Closing the Food Gap, Mark Winne cites a powerful quote from Janet Poppendieck that speaks to this point:
What I have found in seven years of studying the growth and institutionalization of the emergency food system is that emergency food has become very useful indeed… The United States Department of Agriculture uses it to reduce the accumulation of… agricultural surpluses. Business uses it to dispose of… unwanted product, to … avoid dump fees, … and to accrue tax savings… Churches use it to express their concern for the least of their brethren… Environmentalists use it to reduce the solid waste stream… A wide array of groups, organizations and institutions benefit from the halo effect of “feeding the hungry.” If we didn’t have hunger, we’d have to invent it.
Are we truly running our food banks with the input and interests of our customers in mind? Are we providing additional services and training that can help folks no longer need to rely on our food banks? Are we advocating against the societal injustices that get in the way of folks feeding themselves, no matter how much training they posses? Are we actually engaging with the people that visit our food banks and hearing their stories, or is the food bank just something that happens on a week day that only the pastor and a few other volunteers from the congregation know anything about? Are we connecting the meals we provide our customers to the Meal, the Eucharist we gather around every Sunday? Food banks do have their place, but we must prayerfully ask whether they are actually combating food insecurity, or merely perpetuating it.

Another way we can create spaces for the food insecure and secure alike to engage with each other is through recovering the ancient Christian practice of the “agape love feast” discussed above. This doesn’t mean simply turning our liturgies into the careless, drunken feasts rightly criticized by Saint Paul and Saint Augustine however. Rather, in prayerful consideration of the Church Fathers’ criticisms of the practice and accompanied in conversation with those facing food insecurity in our communities, we can carefully reconstruct the Eucharist as the “agape love feast” it was meant to be, a time of communion with God and all our neighbors, no matter their social station. Community gardens can also create space for the sharing of personal narratives, but as Mark Winne states repeatedly, when engaged in the ministry of organizing a community garden, its important to remember “The most important word in community garden is not garden.” These sort of ministries will not change the desolation of our conventional food system overnight, or even in the longterm on their own, but if they’re creating community where stories and learnings can be shared in relationships of mutuality, they can have a beneficial effect. Finally, I know it won’t be a major contribution, but one little thing I’m dearly hoping to do on my first call is to build a chicken coop behind the parsonage, if local zoning regulations allow. While I want fresh eggs to eat myself and share with parishioners and neighbors, and thus contribute towards creating an alternative food system in at least a small way, my main reason for setting up a coop will be to spark conversation about food justice in the small city context I will likely be called to serve. Chickens are a great and extremely easy way to get people talking, are a lot of fun, and even can provide some great fertilizer for the congregation’s community garden!

The finally step in organizing for food justice in faith communities of course is to well, make it happen. In helping folks remember that our conventional food system was not always one of utter desolation, we can open eyes to other possibilities. By creating spaces for those living in food insecurity to tell their stories, important relationships can develop and folks can begin to feel the link between their own eating practices, their public lives, and their faith. Yet without engaging in the work of actually advocating a for healthier, more accessible and sustainable food system, all the community gardens, agape love feasts and chicken coops won’t mean much beyond serving as simple feel good activities. By identifying small, easily solvable problems in our local communities to tackle first, we can begin to build a foundation for greater successes and often avoid the political controversy that federal-level advocacy usually entails.

Finally, when engaging in advocacy work, we should always remember Christ’s preferential option for the poor. In other words, advocacy on behalf of folks living in food insecurity, instead of advocacy with folks living in food insecurity, is both extremely patriarchal and usually ineffective. I’ll never forget an experience I had last year in this regard. On the “Day on the Hill” portion of Ecumenical Advocacy Days in Washington, I visited Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s office to talk about issues related to food and hunger along with a number of other EAD participants. We were kindly received, listened to, and offered a Chobani for our efforts (Senator Gillibrand likes to emphasize the work of Upstate NY dairy farmers) before smiling for a picture with the legislative aide who met with us. A few days later I returned to Senator Gillibrand’s office, this time to talk about comprehensive immigration reform. The main difference however was that an amazing woman and member of the congregation where I served in New York City, who herself immigrated to America as a political refugee, joined our group and did most of the talking. After relaying her story, the legislative aide who met with us broke down, cried, and hugged the woman from my congregation. She said she’d personally see to it that the senator would hear about our visit. Personal narratives, especially of those who faced the oppression one is advocating against, hold immense power.

Once again, food is a big deal! Whether we recognize it as such or not, food is a really, really big deal in the lives of believers and nonbelievers alike! Despite its place as a central organizing element of human life, we all too often neglect to give food the reverent care it deserves, even in our faith communities. As people of faith however we can organize to end food insecurity in America and around the world, and furthermore to reform a conventional food system that has resulted in utter desolation. Organizing around food justice can be broken down into three steps and one over-arching value. We can begin by helping folks remember our food system was not always this broken and to thereby recognize something better is possible. We can then begin creating spaces where folks living in food insecurity can feel comfortable sharing their stories and where allies can begin connecting those stories to their own lives. Finally, we can simply identify an easily solvable problem and act in order to begin building up an ever greater body of success. Throughout this work however, we must always be acting in accompaniment with those directly facing food insecurity or related injustices. Advocating with rather than for such individuals, we can live out the calling of Micah 6:8, a calling common to both Judaism and Christianity, to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with our God. 

Dustin is a recent graduate from the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia and approved candidate for ordination in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. An evangelist, urban gardener, mountain climber, community organizer, saint and sinner, Dustin spends most of his professional time wrestling with God and proclaiming liberation in Christ. Otherwise, Dustin likes hiking, playing frisbee, hanging out with an amazing woman named Jessie and pretending to know how to sing.

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