“We are what we eat” Reflections on the Just Food Conference.

I had the opportunity this weekend to attend and be a part of the Just Food conference, hosted by the Farminary at Princeton Theological Seminary. It was one of those experiences where I walked away from feeling overwhelmingly inspired. As I’ve mentioned, food justice has become a consuming passion for me (See what I did there?) and it was good to connect with others for whom the ways we produce and consume are so connected to their understanding of faith. What I’m left with is a conviction that food is the intersection through which we can tackle most of, if not all, of the great challenges of the day if we have the willingness to take seriously the adage “we are what we eat”.

One of my fellow presenters was Joe Martinez. Joe is the head of an organization called CIERTO which focuses on the food supply chain “We establish a transparent and fair process for worker recruitment that prevents recruitment fraud, debt peonage, trafficking and slavery. ┬áCIERTO focuses on farm worker recruitment, training, and dispatch to agricultural employers in Mexico and the United States”. I was privileged to talk to joe during breaks and the work he is doing is astounding. He is working both in Mexico and in the US to make sure that the workers who grow and harvest our food are kept out of modern slave practices and other harmful practices. He and his staff do this work at great personal risk as they attempt to circumvent corruption on both sides of the border.

My conversations with Joe highlighted a personal point of privilege for me. I take great joy in being outside working in the dirt and tending to my garden. For many, the joy of working the soil has been replaced by the drudgery of doing back breaking work only to be exploited by their employers. And this has been much of the agricultural history of the United States and everywhere that the rules of empire have been in play. The work of agriculture has been separated from ideas of being in right relationship with the land and replaced with an emphasis on the bottom line that profits the very few. One of the attendees of the workshop that I facilitated was the pastor of an aging African American Presbyterian congregation. She said that there is no way to get her people interested in gardening or farming largely in part because of the historical implications that agriculture has with the black experience in this country. When people are only a generation or two removed from the plantation, the idea of farming can seem like a step in the wrong direction.

Much of what the conference centered around was a theological approach to repairing this broken relationship with the land. Dr. Elaine James, an Old Testament scholar who does work on land ethics, lead us in a discussion about the language of food in the Song of Solomon. It was fascinating to note that a text that is so often looked at for it’s rich descriptions of erotic love also is filled with imagery of food and agriculture. Once Dr. James highlighted several passages, it was easy to see how we are equally in need of restoration of intimacy in our personal relationships and in our relationship to the land. It was very interesting to note that the sensual nature of both sex and food are celebrated in the biblical text! Fred Bahnson, the founding director of the Food, Health, & Ecological Well-being Program at Wake Forest University School of Divinity, explored the overwhelming presence of trees in the biblical narrative and challenged us to reclaim the language for our faith that is grounded in this world, not just seeking for another. Of particular interest to me, as a lover of compost, was his description of humus, the layer of decaying leaves that gets broken down to feed the trees. He referred to our work as humus and challenged us to think about what we are leaving behind nurture the lives and work of those who come behind us. In a culture that fears death and does everything possible to avoid its inevitability, it was a good reminder that death is a part of the cycle of life.

Restoring our broken relationship with earth can in many ways lead us to restoring the broken relationships among people. the final keynote of the conference was lead by Richard Joyner, Chris Berardi, and Larry Chewning. Richard is the founder and board chair of Conetoe Family Life Center and senior pastor of Conetoe Missionary Baptist. He’s also the chaplain within the Nash Health Care system of which Larry Chewning is the CEO. Imagine that! The CEO of a hospital interested in healthy food! The Conetoe Family Life Center is using farming to increase the health and well being of the poor, African American town and to create leadership in its young people. Joyner explains that the people in his town average an income of $21,000 a year. The third part of the triangle, Chris Berardi, pastors First Presbyterian Church of Rocky Mountain, a congregation whose income is closer to six figures. Around food and farming is where these two congregations find common purpose. It was during this presentation that it hit me: many of the folks that are working on issues of food justice do so by crossing lines of racial division. Food connects us to our common humanity. Everybody eats! It also connects us, painfully, to the history of racial division. Partnerships that are willing to address this reality can go a long way toward healing these divisions and forming new relationships of equality. It’s a start…

A recap of Sera Chung’s sermon for the closing worship would not do it justice. Rev. Chung has a powerful preaching (and singing) voice and she used it that morning to highlight the ways in which we connect food to identity and ultimately the ways that our identities as Christians is connected to a meal of bread and wine. And that’s the heart of it, right? Wheat repurposed for bread, grapes repurposed for wine, Christ’s body repurposed for Christ’s church to do Christ’s work in the world. We are what we eat! That means that we are the agricultural practices that go into what we eat. We are the economic practices that go into what we eat. We are the inclusion and exclusion that happens at our tables. We are ┬áthe abuse put into a factory farm and we are the care and love put into a home cooked meal. There is great capacity for death and life in our food. What’s forming in me is an increased consciousness around food and the way it connects me to God and neighbor. I believe that food is the emerging justice issue of our time and but maybe it always has been our most pressing justice issue. Food is about access and equitability. Food is about health and wellness. Food is about jobs and exploitation. Food is about worship and community. We are what we eat and all that has gone into what we eat. So what kind of people are we?

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