Faith and Food Justice: Are We Asking the Right Questions?

This is part one of a short series on faith and food justice.

Food is one of the central themes of the Scriptures. We see it at the very beginning, with the Garden of Eden and its abundance of fruit – and the one tree that Adam and Eve are commanded not to eat. Throughout the Torah, it continues to play a significant role: the famine that forces Jacob's family to move to Egypt; the manna that is provided in the wilderness; the festivals and dietary laws that set Israel apart from the other nations by what they do, and do not, eat.

The rules for gleaning, which allowed the poor to eat what was left over in the fields, are crucial to the plot of Ruth. Prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah offer us a vision of a world where we eat together in harmony – and a condemnation of those in their own times who exploit or ignore those who are hungry and in need. Throughout the New Testament, Jesus uses meals and stories about agriculture to teach his disciples, while Paul addresses the problems in the early churches' table fellowships.

At the heart of many of these stories is a concern not only for food as such, but for food justice. Food is not simply a prop in the background, but is at the very center of what is happening. Part of this is because, as human beings, we have to eat – while we may not live on bread alone, we do need calories to sustain our bodies. To deny someone food is to deny them their life. There is also a consideration for how food defines our social relationships. What we eat, and with whom we eat, form a major part of our personal and cultural identities. When certain people are excluded from the table, like Gentiles or the poor, we are making a statement about their worth and significance – which is why Paul speaks so harshly to the Corinthians and the Galatians about their meal practices.

In order to approach all of these concerns, and what they mean for justice in the 21st century, we should be looking at food issues not as individual concerns, but as part of broader food systems. A food system incorporates everything that happens as a part of the process to bring a meal to our table: from the production of our food at farms, the transport to warehouses and eventually to its final location, the purchase of food, and finally its consumption. All of these – farms, ships, trucks, warehouses, grocery stores, cafeterias, restaurants, and even our dining room table – are connected together, pieces of one puzzle that come together every time we go out for lunch or have a quick snack in our kitchen. When we look at food in the context of this broader system, we begin to see where the justice concerns are, and how the system does – and does not – measure up to what God desires for us.

To look at our food systems honestly, and determine whether or not they are truly just, we must look at these questions:

Who does, and does not, have access to food?

Basic food security is one of the first justice concerns with regards to food systems. If a person cannot eat, they cannot live – and there are people in every nation who go hungry every night. The unique challenge of modern times is that this is not an issue of food production; we currently produce more than enough food to provide everyone with the sustenance that they need to survive, based on global food production per capita. However, the distribution of food – between and within nations – is incredibly unequal. In many Western nations, especially the United States, obesity-related illnesses like heart disease are among the leading killers. A world in which some people are dying of starvation, while others are eating themselves to death, is not inevitable; it is an injustice that requires the people of God to respond.

Related to that question is the issue of what kind of food people can access. As mentioned before, obesity-related illnesses are a major problem in Western nations – but they tend to disproportionately impact the poor. In many urban poor neighborhoods, fresh fruit and vegetables are hard to come by and prohibitively expensive, while fast food, soda, and snacks can be found everywhere. The result is a high rate of diseases like Type II diabetes, now even affecting children.

How are the people involved in the food system treated?

A concern for the rights and welfare of agricultural laborers is found all the way back in the Torah, where you could not withhold the wages of a worker from them at the end of the day (Deut. 24:14-15). Many people are involved in the process of bringing food to our table, and they are frequently underpaid, overworked, and completely forgotten. For example, farm workers out in the fields often go for long periods of time without adequate shade and water, many food service employees cannot take time off when they are sick, and waiters often make less than minimum wage and hope that tips pay their bills. We cannot say that the food on our table is truly just unless these people have been treated fairly and with respect.

Who are we inviting to our meals?

One of the defining characteristics of the early church was their meals. People were called to come together, because of the Gospel of Christ, and eat with one another – regardless of their ethnic, cultural, class, and other differences. When they failed to do so, they were harshly reprimanded (Galatians 2:12; 1 Corinthians 11:18-22). As Christians, our meals should be a part of our witness to that Gospel of reconciliation and crossing boundaries – and so, when we do eat the food that has come to us through all of these systems, we should be thinking about who is, and is not, present in those meals. Food creates and cements our social relationships. Thus, when we share meals and invite people into our homes for fellowship, we need to be concerned with whether or not the people who we are building relationships with, represent the people with whom Christ has called us to be.

In future articles, I will explore each of these three questions, looking at different approaches for understanding and changing our food systems. Asking the questions is only the first step towards a table where we eat not only in the presence of food, but in the presence of food justice.

-Steve Holt is an Anglican priest serving the city of Baltimore, as well as a Director of Community Engagement with Citizens Planning and Housing Association (CPHA). He is a former organizer with Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE) in Los Angeles, and a 2012 graduate of Fuller Seminary, where he received his Master of Divinity.