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The Gift of Food | Economics, Justice, Fellowship

We explore the economics of food, how food relates to issues of justice, and how fellowship around the table can bring us together.


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A variety of spices spread on black background

Photo by Colin Hoogerwerf

We explore the economics of food, how food relates to issues of justice, and how fellowship around the table can bring us together.

Description

As creatures that must eat to live, human life is dependent on taking the lives of other creatures. In this episode we explore ethics, the science, and the theology behind taking the lives of animals to become our food. In the process we meet some of the animals and some of the people who raise them. We end up with at least as many questions as when we started and yet we also find a richer appreciation for the ways in which we are connected to other creatures through eating. 

This is the last episode of a five part mini-series.

Theme song and credits music by Breakmaster Cylinder. Other music in this episode by Northern Points, Babel, Magnetize Music, Diverse Music, Titan Sound, Nathan King, Mike Meehan, & Ballian De Moulle courtesy of Shutterstock, Inc.

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Transcript

Stump:

Welcome to Language of God. I’m Jim Stump.

Hoogerwerf: 

And I’m Colin Hoogerwerf. 

Stump: 

We’re coming to the end. This is our last episode in this series. 

Hoogerwerf:

And we’ve got a bit to do yet. In this episode we’re going to explore several issues starting with food economics. 

Stump: 

That, I think, will lead us to talking about food justice. 

Hoogerwerf: 

And Justice leads pretty naturally to talking about the fellowship that food can bring around a table. 

Stump: 

And that will, we hope, leave us in a place where we can explore some final thoughts about all this. What it means to be creatures that eat and how we might go about making decisions about our eating.   

Hoogerwerf: 

Ok. Here we go.

[musical transition]

Stump: 

Last episode we spent a lot of time with animals that were becoming food. Let’s start today at a farm that focuses more on plants. Plainsong Farm is located north of Grand Rapids. 

Parish: 

Plainsong is about 12 acres. And we’ve got growing fields that we are currently in  work-in-partnership with New City Neighbors—it is raining, we’re gonna want to go in [fade]

Hoogerwerf: 

This is Nurya Love Parish, who we actually heard from at the very beginning of the first episode of the series. 

Parish: 

I’m the executive director of Plainsong Farm.

Hoogerwerf: 

We didn’t get to walk around the farm for too long before the rain sent us inside, but I’ve been on the property a couple of times and it has always felt like a place where food becomes a means to bring people together. In fact, that’s very directly what Plainsong farm is all about.   

Parish: 

Our mission is to cultivate connections between people, places, and God; as a place that nurtures belonging and the radical renewal of God’s world.

Hoogerwerf: 

With Plainsong Farm’s mission in mind, I asked Nurya for an example of a time when growing food helped to really bring some aspect of faith to light. 

Parish: 

It was pre-pandemic, we had this heirloom wheat program. It was a really illuminating experience to take one grain of wheat, and we prayed before we planted them, and then we got them in the ground, relatively mindfully. But then they would come up, it just, they would come up in the spring. So we, the way we did it, you plant in the fall, and it stays alive throughout the winter under the earth. And then just like the hymn says, “Love is come again, like wheat that springeth green.” And indeed, the wheat would spring right at Easter time. And then you would get, you know, Jesus talks about a single grain bearing 20-, 30-, 100-fold. And there you see it. There are the stalks of grain and you know that it started out as one grain, and it turns into 20 to 30 (we didn’t get 100-fold). And it was like, “This is God’s economy. This is God’s economy! How do I fit in that economy?”

Stump: 

God’s economy, at least in this example, is food abundantly coming out of the ground. That matches pretty well with how we’ve been trying to think about food as a gift. God’s economy is probably a gift economy rather than a transactional one. God’s economy is also not exactly based on the systems of food economics that have developed in the United States.

Hoogerwerf: 

No. And when we ask how we fit into God’s economy, that might put us at some tension with the economy that is a bit more visible to us in our day-to-day lives. 

Stump: 

So let’s say we’re trying to get closer to God’s economy. As we talk about food, the question I continue to have as we see these really beautiful examples of people growing their own food in their backyards and small farms growing plants and raising animals in thoughtful and loving ways is, “Is that scalable? Can we really feed 300 million Americans in this way?

Hoogerwerf: 

Or eight billion around the world? Yeah, it’s a good question. And like all good questions, it doesn’t have a simple answer.

Parish: 

The economics of food in America are very not simple. 

Hoogerwerf:

So let’s bring in an economist to help think through that question. 

McMullen: 

As an economist, I was trained to do empirical research—that is, to get data and to answer questions about education policy and about labor markets. 

Hoogerwerf:

This is Steve McMullen.

McMullen:

And so it was only by a quirk of my life experience that I started asking questions about animals in the environment, and that is that members of my family decided to become vegan for health reasons. 

Stump: 

We met Steve briefly last episode. He teaches economics at Hope College.

McMullen: 

And we started having these conversations about how animals were treated and about the environment, as a result of that life change by my parents and my grandparents, actually. And then it was through conversations with friends that I slowly came to the realization that I thought it was my duty as an economist and as a Christian to stop eating meat and stop eating dairy and eggs. And that immediately resulted in me asking a whole bunch of economic questions that I would not have asked before, like “What is it about the economy and about the economic system and about supply chains and business? What is it about this system that has resulted in animals—or farmed animals, at least—having pretty poor lives?” And once I started asking those questions, it just took off; I started writing and reading a lot. And it’s been very exciting and very interesting.

Hoogerwerf: 

Ok, so this question of scale is difficult and even amongst economists there are going to be some different answers.

McMullen: 

Here’s the thing. There’s some disagreement on this. And I, so let me tell you, where the disagreement is, and where my best judgment lies. Because there’s some there’s some difficult questions you have to answer. 

Stump: 

One of those questions is, “What diet are we trying to feed people?” The current American diet is among the highest in calories in the world and pretty high in meat. Feeding the whole world on an American diet would be hard with any food production system.

McMullen: 

If we switched to a model that was perhaps more sustainable with smaller farms, could we produce that same amount of food that we’re producing right now, even? And the answer is probably not. There are some people that dispute this.

Hoogerwerf: 

People have come a long way in the efficiency of producing food with sustainable practices. Here’s Norman Wirzba, perhaps one of those disputers?

Norman: 

We learned enough. And we’re learning more still, about how we can develop agricultural techniques that keep some of the philosophical economic principles in view, but also increase yields. We’ve got a science around soil fertility now that we didn’t have, in the time of the enclosures, right? Farmers back then didn’t know why they couldn’t get more than 20 or 30 bushels an acre. We can use natural systems agriculture now and produce 120 bushels per acre. And that’s a good thing! So it’s not about turning back the clock, but it’s about learning from the past, keeping in view the philosophical or spiritual principles that are going to motivate our work, because I think the truth of the matter is that we can feed our world. And we can do it in ways that are humane, but we need to figure out what are the principles that are going to guide us, and then find ways to resist an economic system that continually denies those possibilities.

Stump: 

Ok. Let’s make it clear here that Norman and Steve are not necessarily arguing with each other. They are making slightly different points and speaking to slightly different ideas. Steve is speaking from the standpoint of economics, and his qualifiers there were pretty specific: changing an agricultural model, and producing the same amount of food we’re producing now. And the dispute here might be more about how much food a different model could actually produce. But there’s another factor that comes into play. 

McMullen: 

What’s almost certainly true is that the cost of production is a little bit higher when you go to smaller farms. And so can you produce food, at current scale, as cheap as we’re producing it? Definitely not. There are some costs; there’s some trade-offs here. The modern industrial model is really efficient in some important dimensions.

Hoogerwerf: 

That efficiency comes from a mixture of science and technology. We have bred and modified plants to grow faster and bigger and yield more per acre, along with creating new and better fertilizers and pest management. We’ve also created technology that can do things faster and over bigger areas than people could do in the past: giant tractors with pinpoint GPS accuracy.

McMullen: 

100 years ago, it was an economic necessity for people to grow their own food, and it was a reasonable economic decision so that even if you didn’t like growing your own food, it still made sense to do it as much as you could. Today, it doesn’t make sense. People who love to do it still do it, but it’s a hobby now. Yeah. It’s something it’s a hobby that I find very rewarding. But to actually grow your own food isn’t a great economic choice for most people taking that same time and going and getting a job and buying food at the grocery store. You come out way ahead. 

Stump: 

So according to Steve we’re not going to be able to keep producing as much food as cheaply if we move toward smaller farms and sustainable practices. But what if we change the way we eat? 

McMullen: 

Could we move to a smaller farm model and feed the whole world with a different diet? I think probably yes. So if we flip if we nuanced the question a little bit and ask, could we have more humane farms without people going hungry? We could. We would probably be eating a lot more plants.

Hoogerwerf: 

This would also require making a lot of other changes to the food system. For example how and where food is distributed and where food is sold.

McMullen: 

I mean, so right now our food system is geared up to deliver cheap animal protein. 

Hoogerwerf: 

Think fast food. It’s chicken, cows and pork. That would all need to change in order to feed the whole world in this smaller humane farm model that Steve is imagining. 

McMullen: 

One simple way of thinking about it is veggie burgers would have to become a lot more common. And, you know, fresh fruits and vegetables are easy to get at a big supermarket. They’re harder to get in smaller shops. So I can go into a gas station right now and I can get a breakfast sandwich with an English muffin and a slab of sausage like material and egg and cheese. And I can get that really easily. I can’t go in right now and buy a similar sort of fresh fruits and vegetables. They don’t last as well. Alright, stocking them requires a whole different supply chain

Stump: 

Ok, so making this kind of change would not be easy. Not only would it mean changing the way food is produced, who grows it and what methods they use, but would mean changing distribution, even down to changing things like the shelving in gas stations. 

Hoogerwerf: 

Let’s go back to our original question, which is trying to understand if it’s realistic to want to scale up the kinds of food production that cares for land and animals. And the temptation there, I think, is to villainize the huge farms. Now clearly there are some industrial farming practices that are pretty terrible for the environment and practices that treat animals very poorly. And Steve acknowledges that.  

McMullen: 

That said, the farmer who’s able to, through use of precision watering and fertilizing and modern machinery, with only a few people working, grow hundreds and thousands of acres of corn and soybeans and peas and spinach and other kinds of crops—that’s a wonderful thing. And that’s part of how we’re able to feed the world right now with a relatively small portion of the population working on farms. It’s because a few farms are producing extraordinary amounts of food. So we wouldn’t want to dial that back.

Stump: 

But there’s a kind of rebuttal to this too. Maybe it’s not even quite a rebuttal because there really needs to be more nuance to it than that term allows for. Here’s Nurya again with some of that nuance.

Parish: 

There was an impulse towards, you know, larger farms and lower end costs to the consumer without any real understanding of the long-term costs. You can have a short-term cost for cheap chicken, but in the long term, you’re going to pay more for the negative health consequences of that confined operation. And the lack of wellbeing that those chickens are going to have. And the fact that you’ve optimized an entire food system for short-term cheapness has a long-term expense. The money around food is just I’ve given up trying to have money and food make sense. Because the things that are low-cost, in terms of how much money I spend, are high-cost in terms of how they don’t reflect my values and my hope to be a disciple of Jesus Christ who cares for God’s creation, including the people who will live on it after me. And so if we have a food system that is not optimizing for the health of the soil and the water, then we have a food system that is not honoring God and God’s creation.

Hoogerwerf: 

So there is something really important about being able to produce food efficiently, and often that is done on a really large scale, but there are costs associated with the efficiency that go beyond the short-term economics. But the size of a farm is probably not a good way to determine whether those costs are being considered well or not. 

Parish: 

As I look into the future, it appears to me that either we’re going to do more damage to the rest of God’s creation through continuing this command-and-control approach, or we’re going to find ways to live appropriately in our places. And I no longer believe that that only is small-scale agriculture. I absolutely believe that small-scale agriculture is an integral and essential part of any solution. But it’s wise-scale agriculture that is oriented towards soil health, conservation of biodiversity, and climate adaptation and mitigation, and is getting ready for the climate shocks that we’re going to have or the migration experiences that we’re going to have and the unexpected circumstances that we’re going to have.

Norman: 

And so to think about a food and agricultural system that starts with honoring life, that means you have to mobilize people to give their care in the form of labor to the maintenance, the fertility of soil, of watersheds. And by the way, I’m not calling for a massive “back to the land” movement because, first of all, most people don’t have enough smarts to do good farming; they don’t have the skill sets or the affections to do good farming. But we need to make it possible for people who want to learn it to do it. And we’re definitely going to need to have more people growing food than what we’ve got right now because we’ve replaced people with machines.

[musical interlude]

Hoogerwerf: 

We’re not done with economics yet. As I’ve been on a food journey of my own, I’ve been making some dietary changes in an attempt to better make my eating more in line with some of my values for caring for land, plants, animals, and people. And often after I’ve made a change of some sort, I start to wonder whether it makes any difference. Now there are a couple ways to think about this. The first might be to say, “Who cares if it makes a difference? That’s not the point.”

Stump: 

Ah, that brings us to ethics! This first approach is to deny that what makes something right or wrong is the consequences that follow from it; it’s simply saying that something is right in and of itself, regardless of the consequences. Classically known as Kant’s deontological ethics, if you’re into that sort of thing. 

Hoogerwerf: 

Wouldn’t it be nice if you could do something because it is right and it would bring about a change? 

Stump: 

Yes, and in the short term, that isn’t always the case. But if our worldview is correct, then doing the right thing will ultimately lead to good consequences. It’s just the timescale isn’t always known. For our immediate question, I guess we want to know the short-term consequences.

McMullen: 

And a lot of people ask, “If I stop eating chicken, is it actually going to improve the lives for any chickens? Does it make a difference? Or if I stopped eating beef, does it actually improve the life of a cow?”

Hoogerwerf: 

Steve, as an economist, is pretty interested in immediate change. He’s using examples of eating meat because that’s where his research has been. And to keep things simple we’ll actually just stick to the example of chicken going forward here. But of course you could ask this of anything. Does eating organic or eating local or eating whatever other value, actually change how food is grown and made?

McMullen: 

It’s tempting to think, I will say, that animal agriculture is just too big and the supermarket chains are just too big for my purchases to make a real difference. This is actually the conclusion that many very smart philosophers have come to when they look at the question. I disagree, though.

Hoogerwerf: 

Do you want to respond to that as a very smart philosopher?

Stump: 

[laughs] I’m not sure I’m qualified. Let’s let Steve keep talking.

McMullen: 

When I choose not to eat chicken, the result is, in a simple fashion, that my local store is selling fewer chickens, that on average they’re probably going to buy fewer chickens from, well, most likely from Tyson and one of the major chicken distributors, Tyson will then, on average—it’s not gonna have the same effect for everyone—they’re going to then try to contract with farmers to raise fewer chickens for slaughter. And the end result will probably be—again, on average—one fewer chicken put into that system that is hatched and raised and slaughtered over a period of about 90 days, and then delivered to a grocery store.

Hoogerwerf: 

Steve has written a paper about this which includes a lot more technical economics than we’re going to throw at our listeners—it’s linked in the show notes if anyone wants to go further down that trail—but the point he’s making here seems like a big deal. If his argument is true, what we choose to purchase matters. And that means if we care about how food gets to our plate and we choose to make different decisions, that the world will actually change in response to what we do. We can’t go moping around anymore thinking we have no power. 

Stump: 

Yeah… I have some questions about this…

Hoogerwerf: 

So you are one of those smart philosophers.

Stump: 

Not saying that, but it usually doesn’t stop me from voicing my opinion about things. He’s saying that a single person who chooses not to buy a single chicken, that somehow Tyson will look at their computer and say…”ooh, looks like Joe didn’t buy a chicken last week. Better lower production from 13 million to 12,999,999 for next week”

Hoogerwerf: 

I’m not sure that’s exactly what he’s saying.

Stump: 

Yes, I know, and I want to be fair. He points out that in the context of our complex market system, that companies are getting more and more responsive to individual choice. The computer does keep track of how many chickens are on the shelf in the supermarket, and one individual purchase really could prompt them to order more, or not order more. So if I order one less chicken per month, that could make a difference in how many total chickens Tyson produces… I guess.

Hoogerwerf: 

So do we just disagree then, a little, on whether Steve’s claim is true that not buying a single chicken will have any effect on a giant food-manufacturing company?

Stump: 

No, I’m not so much disagreeing with Steve as am I concerned about whether one very, very small effect is how we should be deciding whether an action is right or wrong. If eating chicken is wrong, then it doesn’t matter for the ethics of that question whether there is a measurable effect on Tyson. Even if there’s not, I still shouldn’t do it.

Hoogerwerf: 

Hmm. For me, there has been something really freeing about believing that it does make a difference. It seems like it has given me more reason to make changes that felt like they were pointless to make otherwise. And some of those changes include some big sacrifices. Sticking with the example of chicken, chicken tastes good. [music starts] But maybe there should be something else motivating me to make changes to eat in a way that considers food to be a gift. 

McMullen: 

These plants and animals have a kind of beautiful existence in which they glorify God in their own right. And I should at least try to minimize the damage I do to that beautiful existence. And that’s what I was thinking when I started thinking about changing the way I eat, right. By eating fewer animals, eating less dairy and less meat, and eating plants primarily, I have a smaller footprint. But also it means I’m not buying into a system that has become a very efficient machine for turning animals into only chunks of meat, and not, in my view, allowing them to live any kind of unnatural life that would allow them to glorify God and in the way that they were created. I just wanted to opt out of that, is what I decided. As much as I can not participate or support that, and instead try to support with my diet less damage but also a different kind of relationship with the natural world.

[musical transition]

Stump: 

So our eating choices can help care for plants and animals. Also soil. And we’ve talked a lot about plants and animals in this series. Let’s shift our focus now to the effects of our food choices on one of those animals in particular. Those bipedal, large-brained animals. 

Weston: 

No only do we need to think about it in terms of, we need to think about the land in which the animals are raised and we need to think about the land on which the food that we eat is grown. But we also need to think about the land on which people are forced to work, as pickers, as growers. And oftentimes they are the most vulnerable people in our communities who are doing this work. So thinking that there are not just animals on this land, there’s not just plants on this land, but there are people on this land, who are also being adversely affected by the ways that we traditionally grow food.

Hoogerwerf: 

This is Derrick Weston. We’ve heard him a few times in the series now. He’s the host of the Food and Faith podcast, which has been thinking about issues of food and faith for a long time and has some fantastic conversations. Check it out. He’s also the Theological Education & Training Coordinator for Creation Justice Ministries. And he’s the co-author of a book called The Just Kitchen: Invitations to Sustainability, Cooking, Connections and Celebration. 

Stump: 

From the beginning of this series, we’ve worked to show that food is a great connector, including between people. There’s also a lot of money and power behind food, and because of both of those things, food issues can very quickly become justice issues. And it’s not just how we grow food that affects people. 

Weston: 

One of the things that I recognized about food was that in some way or another, food and land connects to all of the justice issues that I care about most. And that was a lightbulb, “aha moment” for me. When we look at who has access to healthy food, who has access to fresh fruits and fresh vegetables, those things are very much demarcated by racial lines and by socioeconomic lines. When we look at the fact that the so-called diseases of civilization—which are obesity, diabetes and hypertension—that those exist disproportionately in Black and Brown communities and poor, rural communities, why is that? Well, that’s because of the ability to access good, healthy foods.

Hoogerwerf: 

I’ve often heard people talk about food deserts. This is the idea that there are specific places where access to nutritious food is really hard to come by.  

Weston: 

There are places that researchers have deemed as food deserts. But the people in those communities have begun to use the term “food apartheid”—recognizing that deserts are naturally occurring things, but what we have is a human-made system that keeps healthy food in certain locations.

Stump: 

Those who are living on very little will go to great lengths to find the least expensive ways to feed themselves. And the least expensive foods available in lower socioeconomic communities are usually the least nutritious kinds of food. 

Weston: 

The way that food injustice shows up in our country, it’s often very confusing because often the most malnourished in our communities are also obese because they’re getting the wrong kinds of calories. They’re getting the wrong kinds of nutrients. They’re getting the wrong kinds of things that are put in their bodies. It’s a big problem, and it’s something that we don’t talk about nearly enough, as far as I’m concerned. And particularly as people of faith, I think we don’t talk about this nearly enough.

Hoogerwerf: 

Christians are very specifically called to feed the hungry. I don’t think that’s only a metaphor for those who hunger for God. For someone to be spiritually well, they must also be physically nourished. 

Stump: 

Yeah, we haven’t talked about fasting at all yet.

Hoogerwerf: 

Hmm, I guess that feels like a bit of a contradiction. Some people actually limit their physical nourishment to find spiritual connection. 

Stump: 

Yeah, I think that’s different. Fasting is choosing to limit your intake so that you might better understand that what you have is a gift. People who have no access to food—or little access to nutritional food—they’re not fasting; they’re being left out of receiving the gift of food.

Hoogerwerf: 

There are a lot of people and organizations that are trying to fix some of these problems and to make food accessible to those who don’t have easy access. Food pantries, for instance. And food pantries are really great and really important, but even in our attempts to feed the hungry, we don’t always think from the perspective of those who are in need. 

Weston: 

Oftentimes the things that end up in food pantries and food banks are the things that we really don’t want in our own homes. They’re canned things, and they’re filled with salt, and they’re filled with sugar, and they’re highly processed, and they’re just not healthy. And so we have made food banks a repository for ultra-processed foods.

Stump: 

And even when we do consider health and provide healthy foods…

Weston:

We still often do so in a way that degrades human dignity. We do so in a way that says, “You don’t have money and power, and I’m giving you this thing, even if it’s a thing that you don’t want and you don’t normally eat, you need to be grateful for what I’m giving you. You need to be grateful because I’m serving you.” And our serving actually becomes power over.

Hoogerwerf: 

This is not to say that feeding people well is impossible. But getting fresh, healthy food—especially food that is grown or raised in loving ways—into the hands and mouths of those who have not typically been able to afford it, is challenging work.To do it well, it has to include listening to the people about what they want, and probably include them in the growing and the production and distribution of the food. 

Stump: 

And it might even include gathering around a table. 

Weston: 

Some of the better feeding programs I’ve seen have been ones where you create opportunities for people to be around the table, and around the table with people of different socioeconomic status, where they’re actually sharing a meal together. There’s also the opportunity to share contacts, and share relationships and share expertise. For so many of us, a lot of our privilege is relational privilege; a lot of what we have is based off of who we know. So being able to create spaces like that, I think it takes a little more work, takes a little more vulnerability, but it’s a step closer towards justice.

Stump: 

Gathering around a table also resonates well with our Christian tradition. Jesus understood the power of the table. 

Hoogerwerf: 

I like to think that as a carpenter, Jesus probably had a special fondness for all well-made furniture, but the table is a lot more powerful than just being a tool that can hold food up at a higher level. In some cultures people eat sitting on the floor, and this too is a table of sorts. Gathering around food is a way of sharing some sort of vulnerability together. 

Niequist: 

There is a particular humility to needing to eat every couple hours, like, “Oh my gosh. We’re not robots; we’re not machines.” We can’t go forever without meeting very basic sort of embarrassing needs, right? Like, how human of us, to get hungry, to need replenishment, to need nourishment. There’s something very vulnerable about that.

Stump: 

This is Shauna Niequist. Shauna was a guest on the podcast a long while back on another episode where we talked about food. Shauna herself is someone who loves food as a means of community. She’s also a writer of several very popular books including Bread and Wine, which is what this whole series is about: life around the table. 

Niequist: 

For anybody who loves food, and who loves feeding people, offering someone a sandwich is another way of saying, “I love you.” Offering someone a place to sit is another way of saying, “I see you, and I want you to have a place to be in my home.” So hospitality and fellowship and gathering. They’re all just practical ways to say I love you. Cornel West has that amazing, is it “justice is what love looks like in public.” And I think hospitality is what love looks like with a snack and a blanket. Right? It’s just different ways of saying, “I love you.” And when we say it’s easy to be lofty about it. Like philosophically, “I love you. I care about you, I value you.” There’s another way to say it is like, “It seems like you’re cold, and I brought you a blanket, and I refreshed your drink, and I brought you a sandwich.” To me, that’s just wordless ways of saying “I love you. I love you. I love you.” And I think we don’t have enough of that in our culture right now.

Stump: 

The importance of gathering around a table and eating with other people came up over and over in our interviews. 

Hoogerwerf: 

Here’s Charles Foster: 

Foster: 

We’re reminded always that we’re meant to be entertaining, that we may be entertaining angels unawares. And of course, whenever we feed a human, we’re entertaining a creature who’s made in the image of God. Food is something which cements our relationships. If we want to become friends with our neighbors. We didn’t ask them to come around for a talk. We asked them around for a meal or at least for drink. If we’re trying to woo our beloved we take them out for dinner we we ram calories down their throat in a restaurant. Eating curates conversation; it brokers relationship. It’s as if we’re saying, “Look: we’re all in the same biological boat. We’ve all got an energy requirement and an esophagus. Whatever our differences, we share the most fundamental biological characteristics.” And on the foundation of that acknowledgement, we can build. 

Stump: 

And here’s Jason Miller, who invited us to his table and cooked a delicious meal for us in order to explore this very idea of fellowship around a table. 

Miller: 

Table fellowship is a huge part of Jesus’ ministry. And it seems to really tick people off, the ways that he practices it. And when you combine that witness with his prescription for the Eucharist, it does start to sound like Jesus’ plan for changing the world is sharing meals to eat.

Hoogerwerf: 

But there were some very particular aspects of what gathering around a table meant for Jesus. 

Jason: 

Specifically, though, if you’re gonna follow the thread, they did it across lines of difference. With a table you don’t collect all the people who are the same or who think the same or who have the same means. But the table: you use it as a tool of reparation and healing, rather than as a tool that doubles down on the existing divisions of class or politics or rule view or race or experience. Right? So it’s not any table, but the kind of table he created. I think there’s a case to be made that his strategy for changing the world was a certain kind of table fellowship that he called us to.

Stump: 

And this all comes back to justice, because justice flows out of community and real connection with other human beings. 

Weston: 

When people are willing to do like, real cultural exchange around food, to like, really cook the foods of their heritage and of their culture, for other people to teach a lesson about where they come from, to teach a lesson about their countries of origin. So many of our core comfort foods come from places of suffering, come from places of hurt, that ultimately became comfort because they were our manna in the wilderness. Right? They were the things that sustained us through hardship. And when we can hear those stories around tables, those become really important connections.

Wirzba: 

And this all builds up on the prophetic tradition in which we find God saying that he is angry about the fact that there are people who are hungry, there are people who are alone, people who are at the margins, right, the table fellowship, which was not, at the very earliest stage, some sort of ritual thing that happens every once in a while but was their daily eating together, became the means to transform the imagination, and the economies of people so that they became a sharing, nurturing presence with each other and in their places. 

[short musical interlude]

Hoogerwerf: 

We’re at the point where we need to somehow wrap all this up. Let’s say someone has been convinced by some of these ideas, like the idea that food can connect us to the world, even to the divine. That if we consider food to be a gift, it will change how we think about growing food and raising animals and the environmental costs that come with modern food production. 

Stump: 

Yeah, and it might change the way we think about who has access to healthy food, and how food and eating together can build relationships. 

Hoogerwerf: 

We said at the beginning and throughout that this whole thing wasn’t about defining what is right and wrong. But it would be nice to have some ideas, at least, of what some habits might look like when we take seriously the idea of food as a gift. 

Stump: 

So, several of our guests did have some advice that could be helpful along those lines. In thinking about where your food comes from, Shauna had a couple of…not rules, but guidelines.

Niequist: 

So as local as possible and as seasonal as possible. 

Hoogerwerf: 

And Shauna said she often thinks about these in an 80/20 kind of way. She tries for 80% of her food to be local and seasonal. But also she’s been doing this for a long time and worked up to that, so maybe it’s not 80% for everyone, at least to begin with. Here’s what Shauna said about why local and seasonal is important. 

Niequist:  

So I love local because of the way it connects you to where you are, and it gives you relationships with the people who are providing for your foods. We all have talked about this, it’s so easy to be divorced from where this food comes from, just magically appear somewhere. No, it doesn’t! A farmer got up early and stayed up late and worked very hard for these particular crops. And then there’s a driver and then there’s, you know.

The seasonal side of it, for me, goes back to that sense of tradition and memory. I think one of the ways that we acknowledge the beauty of the way God made the world is by honoring seasons in a really deep way. Again, we’re not robots; we’re not machines. The natural world has all these beautiful transitions built right into it, and I think they’re all invitations for us to live differently in every season. And some of that is about how we eat.

Stump: 

Nurya had some pretty simple advice.

Parish: 

I learned this from Karen Lubbers, who taught me she was a former, active farmer when I moved to Grand Rapids. And she said, “The best thing you can do is grow your own food. The second best thing you can do is know the farmer who does.”

Hoogerwerf: 

It doesn’t get much more local than your backyard or patio. Growing your own food, for almost everyone, isn’t a realistic way to feed yourself. Steve McMullen made that case, and it’s pretty hard to argue against the inefficiency of growing food yourself. But even Steve still grows his own food. There are reasons to do it other than efficiency. And knowing a farmer who grows your food might sound like a hard thing to do, but it could be as simple as going to the farmers market or finding a nearby farm stand.

Stump: 

Changing the way you eat is a pretty obvious way to live into the idea of food as gift. But there are some other ways that don’t involve changing one’s diet. Norman Wirzba gave a specific example that could be pretty cool for a church to take up.

Wirzba: 

So a model that I think is a really powerful one is churches saying, “As a congregation, we’re going to come behind a farmer or more. And we’re going to make an agreement with them that they are going to grow food that then comes to our congregation members. It’ll be sort of like a CSA, where they pay money up front” because right now, farmers who want to do the right thing, they’re always worried about, “Do I have a market who’s going to buy the food that I grow?” and congregations say, “We’re going to stick with you. We’re going to accept the risk that you yourself undertake every growing season, and we’re going to support you. Whether you have crop failure or not, we’re going to be there to help you.” That would be a really beautiful thing. 

Stump: 

I’d like to see one of our listeners take this idea on and get back to us down the road.

Hoogerwerf: 

Yeah I love the level of accountability in that model. The farmers are accountable to a congregation, to specific individuals whose names and faces are known. And the congregation is accountable to the farmer in supporting the work up front. Norman also pointed out another way that churches could be involved. 

Wirzba: 

And then another thing to do, I think, is that churches own a lot of land. And we’ve got a lot of younger people in particular who want to farm well. But right now, there’s no way they could afford farming land. So another point that I make is, Let’s look at how churches are sitting on land that could be made available to young people who want to grow good food, and do it in a way that honors land, that honors animals, that honors the people who are going to eat the food.

Stump: 

So there’s a collection of some ideas and guidelines. Local and seasonal eating is good. Growing food and knowing a farmer. Churches supporting local farmers and good growing practices. 

Hoogerwerf: 

Over this past year of research and interviews, I’ve been playing around with turning this all into a tidy kind of rubric. I came up with a set of words that could act as guides. One word was close. The closer to my food the better, so for me, a Michigan potato is better than an Idaho potato and a backyard potato is the best of all. Real was another word, with the idea that simple food that reminds me of the plants and animals it was made from is better than highly processed items that don’t. And I knew I wanted to eat sustainably too, in a way that cared for the earth. Those all have to do with the kind of food I’m eating, but I knew that eating with people was important, so I added the word community. Food is better when it brings people together. So close, real, sustainable, community. 

In an attempt to eat more sustainably, my family first stopped eating meat. That put us in some tensions with eating close and real when we were substituting our local meat for Impossible burgers. So we started to eat only meat that came from places we respected. That put us in some tension with community. It’s really hard to explain that kind of thing when someone asks your dietary preferences and we found it was taxing on our ability to gather around the table as often as we wanted. And we’ve also tried to lower our processed foods. That’s in line with close and real, but also conflicts with community at times and with another value which didn’t even make the initial word list: flavor. I just can’t quite seem to give up my cheddar and sour cream potato chips. And I’m not sure I have to.

Stump: 

This all sounds very complex and complicated… which is probably how it ought to be. This is really hard. I guess it reminds me of our Creation Groans series a while back, where we acknowledged that the more you learn about the topic of ecology, the more difficult it is on you because you see the problems that have been created. For food, I wonder whether some people would wish they hadn’t heard all this. We can unreflectively eat whatever tastes good to us, and so long as we don’t dig too deeply, we stay in that “ignorance is bliss” stage. And maybe we should apologize if we’ve complicated the lives and eating choices of our listeners? But I guess I’m not going to apologize for that. Ignoring serious issues doesn’t mean that there aren’t serious issues. I want to know the consequences of our eating choices. I want to think carefully about what all this means for our planet, for our health, for our faith. But I’m afraid that simply learning about all of this doesn’t answer the questions. It’s hard. If it wasn’t hard, we probably could have come up with a set of rules. The deeper you go into thinking about food, the harder the choices get.

Miller: 

It is interesting how you pull the thread on something as simple as how to have a meal in a way that honors our faith. And if you really go with it, you end up touching almost every conceivable thing about the world that we built, right?

Stump: 

That’s Jason Miller again. The complexity of eating is real; “The Science of Food” showed us some of that. We are only just beginning to understand all the ways that what we eat makes us who we are. To ignore that complexity and eat without considering “the web and the weave” (that was Charles Foster’s term)—

Foster: 

The way in which we approach the sacramental business of eating seems to be a requirement to reflect generally on the web and the weave of, of the both physical and moral universe.

Stump: 

—to ignore that, is to ignore a miraculous gift from God. 

Hoogerwerf: 

As much as I want some simple rules, I think the point of all this is that it can’t all be pinned down into a tidy rubric, even if that does start to center some good values. Eating well and really any kind of living that follows Jesus requires care and thoughtfulness, which takes time and effort. And maybe all of that can be pinned down. 

Holmes Curran: 

I think my answer is mostly, “Follow love.” 

Hoogerwerf: 

This is Jen Holnes Curran

Holmes Curran: 

And that is really complicated and difficult in this culture because most of what we receive from stores, the backgrounds of those things is hidden from us. So we can’t know if people were exploited in growing our tomatoes, and we can’t know the ecological footprint and we can’t know… I mean, we can; it’s just so much work. It’s more than anyone can manage. But I think, following love – both love of God and love of neighbor – is the route to finding a good way, right? So, love of God is about receiving what God has given as a gift. And love of neighbor comes into who and what is going into what I’m eating. Which all of this can get real serious. But it also turns out when you follow love, you get the best stuff – because you end up at the farmers market, getting local produce grown by people who care about the soil, which turns out tastes better and is better for your body, and you can make better food with that.

Stump: 

Following the way of love is always a good idea.

Hoogerwerf: 

A nice, simple rule… and yet not so simple at all. 

Credits

BioLogos:

Language of God is produced by BioLogos. It has been funded in part by the Fetzer Institute. Fetzer supports a movement of organizations who are applying spiritual solutions to society’s toughest problems. Get involved at fetzer.org. And by the John Templeton Foundation, which funds research and catalyzes conversations that inspire people with awe and wonder. And BioLogos is also supported by individual donors and listeners alike you contribute to BioLogos. Language of God is produced and mixed by Colin Hoogerwerf. That’s me. Our theme song is by Brakemaster Cylinder. BioLogos offices are located in Grand Rapids, Michigan in the Grand River watershed. If you have questions or want to join in a conversation about this episode, find the link in the show notes for the BioLogos forum. Or visit our website biologos.org, where you’ll find articles, videos, and other resources on faith and science. Thanks for listening.


Featured guests

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Nurya Love Parish

Nurya Love Parish is the Founding Executive Director of Plainsong Farm, an ecumenical and Episopal ministry which cultivates connections between people, places and God as a place that nurtures belonging and the radical renewal of God's world. A graduate of Harvard Divinity School and an adult convert to Christianity, she is a priest in the Episcopal Church and a writer and speaker. She advocates for the development of wiser and more resilient food systems as integral to the practice of discipleship in an era of climate change.
Steven McMullen Headshot

Steven McMullen

Steven McMullen is a professor of economics at Hope College, executive editor of the journal Faith & Economics, fellow at the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics, and associate fellow at the Kirby Liang Centre for Public Theology. He is the author or co-author of three books: Animals and the Economy (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), Digital Life Together: The Challenge of Technology for Christian Schools (Eerdmans, 2020), and Should Wealth be Redistributed? A Debate (Routledge, 2023). He has published book chapters and journal articles about education policy, animal ethics, environmental ethics, economic justice, and Christian theology.
Derrick Weston Headshot

Derrick Weston

Derrick Weston is the theological education and training coordinator for Creation Justice Ministries, an ecumenical organization equipping Christians to live in right relationship with God's creation. He is the co-author of the recently released book "The Just Kitchen: Invitations to Sustainability, Cooking, Conection, and Celebration" and co-hosts the Food and Faith podcast. He, his wife, and four children live outside of Baltimore, Maryland.
Shauna Niequist

Shauna Niequist

Shauna Niequist is the New York Times best-selling author of Cold Tangerines, Bittersweet, Bread & Wine, Savor, and Present Over Perfect. She is married to Aaron, and they live in Chicago with their sons, Henry & Mac. Shauna is a bookworm, a beachbum, and a passionate gatherer of people, especially around the table.
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Norman Wirzba

Norman Wirzba is the Gilbert T. Rowe Distinguished Professor of Theology at Duke Divinity School, and a Senior Fellow at Duke’s Kenan Institute for Ethics. He is the author of several books, including (most recently) This Sacred Life: Humanity’s Place in a Wounded World and Agrarian Spirit: Cultivating Faith, Community, and the Land.
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Charles Foster

Charles Foster is an author and a Fellow of Exeter College, University of Oxford. His books include the New York Times Bestseller, Being a Beast, and many others - many of which have won or been short- or long-listed for various literary prizes. He won the Ig Nobel Prize for Biology in 2016. He lives in Oxford and a remote part of the Peloponnese.
Jason Adam Miller Headshot

Jason Adam Miller

Jason Adam Miller is the founder and lead pastor of South Bend City Church, an eclectic Christian community known for its thoughtful teaching, inclusive vision, and commitment to its city context. An advocate for artists and peacemakers, his work beyond South Bend focuses on cultural headwaters and conflict zones, where he serves an international constituency of leaders. He holds a master’s degree in theology from the University of Notre Dame. His first book, When the World Breaks, explores the Beatitudes as transformative paradoxes that lead us into healing. Find him on Instagram at @jasonadammiller, or learn more at jasonadammiller.com.
Jen Holmes Curran headshot

Jen Holmes Curran

Rev. Jennifer Holmes Curran serves as one of the co-pastors at Sherman Street Christian Reformed Church.