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Our culture encourages us to compartmentalize everything, divide life up into neat bits of time, color-coded and meticulously organized, even our date-nights and play-time with our kids. But no part of human existence and activity exists outside the bounds of divine concern, including what we put in our mouths. Eating is a moral act, so dioceses and Catholic institutions must pay attention to food. It must become as essential as catechesis, actually a part of catechesis. There are many reasons why, but here is the most fundamental: faith shapes life, the whole of life.
We must not fall into the trap of compartmentalizing our faith, scheduling it and hermetically sealing certain parts of our lives from its influence. A million excuses exist for this, but there’s a problem: not one is a good excuse. The first thing a diocese or a Catholic institution can do to improve the moral quality of our food is proclaim this fact: faith shapes life, the whole of life.
The best Biblical source (and least read) that helps us reject the prevailing compartmentalized view that eating is just something we do, not a moral act that God cares about, is Leviticus. Full of laws related to just about every human activity, Leviticus talks of family life, economic exchange, marital relations, right worship and dietary practice: not just what we eat, but how we cultivate and care, harvest and slaughter, buy and sell at market, and prepare our food (and ourselves) for eating. The whole of human life and activity is seen in the light of God, including food. We don’t need a new book of Levitical dietary laws, but we do need to foster a Levitical outlook that says: God cares about what we eat; so should we.
We all know that God (and the Church) cares about our economic transactions and until very recently a simple economics of food existed: we bought it from the person who grew it or raised it. Simplicity meant injustice was relatively easy to see and confront. Our current industrial food system (infinitely more complex than the system of our grandparents and protected by well-funded lobbying efforts) makes it easy to hide injustice and shift blame.
Overreliance on mono-culture and chemical fertilizers wreaks havoc on soil, water, wildlife, and the health of farm-workers; massive federal subsidies means artificially cheap food on domestic and international markets killing many of the world’s small family farms; emphasis on chemical processing means the triumph of what Michael Pollan calls “food-like substances” over real food constituting the single greatest threat facing public health; a pervasive and pernicious urban/rural divide threatens human solidarity and leaves many small family farms struggling to survive without support. As a Church we must call attention to these injustices (along with many others) and prudently work to end them.
We don’t need a war on agribusiness, but we do need to vote with our forks and eat locally. There are simple ways we can do this individually and institutionally: shop at local farmers’ markets, sign-up for a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), dine at farm-to-table restaurants, grow some of our own food at home or in a community garden (better yet, help our parish or pastoral center start one!), drink and serve fair trade coffee, and source our food for school cafeterias and catered events from companies that support local farmers.
Finally, we can’t just focus on our own consumption. We must make sure farmers’ markets accept SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as “food stamps”) money and get the word out to those who need it most. Consequently, we need to learn about the Farm Bill and advocate for those provisions that provide SNAP funding and support local food economies.
The Church cannot be silent about food because she can’t be silent about injustice. So do what you can to proclaim the good news that we can live our faith and eat it too!
(See below for ways that you can vote with your fork!)
Scott McLarty is the Director of the Office for Peace and Justice of the Archdiocese of Chicago where he represents Cardinal George on matters of Catholic Social Teaching and supervises the programs of the office: Catholic Relief Services, the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, Justice Education, Parish Sharing, and Faithful Citizenship.
Simple Steps for Putting Faith in Action
1. Consider expanding your concept of tithing to include it in your food budget by deciding to pay a little bit more for locally grown or sustainably produced foods – dairy products, meat products, and/or vegetables.
2. Support local farms by asking your local grocer and department managers (produce, dairy, and meats) about supporting local farms. Support your local farmers’ market if there is one nearby.
3. Think about adopting a “slow food” position by trying to have more meals at home, together as a family or with friends. Make meals from scratch and from sources as local as possible.
4. Celebrate your favorite saint’s feast day by cooking a homemade meal. Take a recipe from NCRLC’s Cooking for Christ cookbook (available from NCRLC’s website www.ncrlc.com) and offer a prayer for farmers and for their families.
5. Start your own garden and consider donating 10 percent of your produce to someone in need or to a neighbor.
6. Talk to your parish about purchasing food locally for parish events or for the parish school.
7. If you have children, get them involved in cooking with you or gardening with you or going to the farmers’ market with you.
8. Find out if your state or local community has a directory of local farmers that you can go visit and pick and purchase food. Many states have a directory of local farms that tell you where the farms are located and what products are available and when. Some nonprofit organizations also offer state and region-wide directories for consumers.
9. Support local restaurants that are sourcing foods from local growers. More and more chefs are making an effort to source some products from local farmers, and may even highlight the farms on their menus. Let the chefs know how much you appreciate local sourcing when possible.
10. Talk to your local and state government representatives about supporting local agriculture and local sourcing of foods. Become a member of NCRLC and keep informed about food and agriculture issues.
Pat Mertz | Thursday, June 07, 2012
Living in an area where many people make their living raising cattle I don't know how to talk about the hidden costs of eating meat without offending parishioners. I am hoping to learn more from your site. Thank you!
Bernadette Barber | Thursday, May 31, 2012
The church cannot stand silent anymore. Fighting USDA farm bills is monunmental, fighting local issues is a bit easier. We must support Local Food Freedom Acts. Many states are introducing them. Please see www.virginiafoodfreedom.org for an example.
Dawn Morais Webster | Tuesday, May 29, 2012
Please see http://freecatholic808.com/2011/06/16/knowing-beans-and-being-catholic/
Loved this piece. Esp impt in an island state like Hawaii.
My blog tries to look at how our faith intersects with all dimensions of life too. Happy to have found your blog and would welcome your comments on mine.www.freecatholic808.com