Food and faith

How food can help restore our relationship with the earth and with each other.

Swiss chard

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

For the last couple of years, I have had the great pleasure of being a co-host of the “Food and Faith” podcast. Over its three-year run, we’ve had conversations with pastors, gardeners, food justice advocates and seminarians. We’ve also hosted conversations with many climate justice advocates, and people have questioned why a show on food would spend so much time talking to environmentalists and others sounding the alarm about our current climate emergency. I’ve struggled at times to articulate what seems like a very a clear line of thought: Food is the primary way that we connect with the natural world.

It was my friend John Creasy who first helped me to begin to connect the dots. John, a pastor at The Open Door Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh and executive director of the Garfield Community Farm, took me all the way back to Genesis chapter 1. In the first creation story, we see God creating the skies and land, sun, moon and stars, sea creatures, land animals, birds and plants. At the end of each day of creation, God declares what has been made to be “good.” On the sixth day, however, God looks at creation that now includes humanity, and declares it very good. John pointed out that in our anthropocentric view, we often see the “very good” part of creation as being us humans. But that’s not what the text says. The text tells us that God, looking at all that God had created, declared it to be very good. It’s not humanity, it’s humanity in right relationship with creation that elevates the situation above what it had previously been.

John gave me the first part of the equation, but where does food fit into the conversation? For the next piece, I had to turn to writer Michael Pollan. Despite some obvious blind spots around race and class, Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, remains an important thinker when it comes to our food systems. In a 2007 article titled “Unhappy Meals” printed in The New York Times, Pollan gave useful language for the connection that exists between humans and nature through food: “What would happen … if we were to start thinking about food as less of a thing and more of a relationship? In nature, that is of course precisely what eating has always been: relationships among species in what we call food chains, or webs, that reach all the way down to the soil. Species co-evolve with the other species they eat, and very often a relationship of interdependence develops.”

Food is our most intimate relationship with the natural world. And yet the way the food system has developed over the last century has weakened that relationship. Very few of us know where our food comes from whether it’s sausage or plant-based, imitation sausage. And as we have distanced ourselves from where our food comes from, both we and the planet have become less healthy. While multiple factors are involved, there is a positive correlation between an increase in the “diseases of civilization” – hypertension, obesity, and diabetes – and the growth of factory farming — mass deforestation and global transportation that allows us to ship produce across the globe without considering all that needs to occur for it to survive the trip.

While there are no easy answers to this problem, rebuilding our relationship with our food is a start. Knowing the folks who grow and raise our food and growing our own begins that restoration, as does knowing how far our food has traveled to get to our plates. Eating is an intimate act. That intimacy should include not only who is around the table but what is on it.