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Can food justice be a religion?

Columns 2022-12-01, 10:22pm

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Danielle Nierenberg



Danielle Nierenberg

I posed this question recently to Dr. Christopher Carter, who teaches in the Department of Theology & Religious Studies at the University of San Diego. His research focuses on Black theological ethics and racial justice, particularly regarding food and the environment, and he’s also a pastor in the United Methodist Church.

Food and religion have much in common, Dr. Carter told me—for better and for worse. For starters, he said, look at many spiritual texts: "People eat together all the time," he pointed out. Food and faith are both simultaneously deeply personal and inherently community-based, he said, and each can serve as an entry point to larger, thornier, more complex conversations.

And on the flip side—this in particular bothers me—they can both be used to control people. That’s not how either should be, in my view, but the way the industrialized food system is structured makes it easy for it to become used as a weapon, especially against marginalized folks. And, we discussed, it can be painful to see religion used that way, too.

Many people have deep connections to an organized religion, and many do not. I’ll be honest—my household is not religious. I grew up half-Christian and half-Jewish, and my husband and I like to joke that he’s a "recovering Catholic."

Personally, I tend to think about food as a spiritual practice. I often turn to cooking, for example, as comfort. It’s a calming ritual, and also one that helps me appreciate the people and effort that got these ingredients onto my cutting board.

So, my question to Dr. Carter: Can food justice be a religion?

Absolutely, he told me. Like faith systems, food systems connect us to ourselves, to one another, and to things bigger than us.

"Ultimately, religion is about meaning-making," he said. "That's really what it is: How do I construct meaning out of my own existence? And what resources and tools do I use to do that?"

"In food, it's the exact same thing," he continued. "We take the things that we eat…and we infuse those meals with a particular sense of identities of who we are, and how they connect us to each other—how they connect us to things beyond ourselves."

The links between food and faith are already being used to spark conversations around change in food and ag systems.

At the 2022 Come to the Table Conference, organized by the Come to the Table Program of the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI-USA), farmers, faith leaders, and activists came together to discuss the root causes of unjust food systems and the key role communities of faith play in cultivating food justice. You can read more about it HERE.

Natalie Baszile, author of the books "Queen Sugar" and "We Are Each Other’s Harvest," phrased it really well. She said: "Faith communities can be the connector between the farmworker and the community." At the conference, Irma Juárez, a farmworker from Guatemala, agreed and said her collaboration with the Episcopal Farmworker Ministry (EFWM) in North Carolina has helped her connect with other farming women and leave a lasting legacy in her community.

RAFI-USA’s Farm and Faith Partnerships Project connects farmers of color with local faith communities and congregations to build these sorts of sustainable relationships, and in a publication titled "Food, Faith, and Farmers of Color: A Guide for Community Collaboration," the organization offers more resources on food justice and faith.

I’m inspired by the countless organizations working to bridge food and faith, too. Black Church Food Security Network, started by Rev. Heber Brown III, works with congregations and farmers to co-create local, Black-owned food systems. MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger works not only to fight local hunger but strengthen national-level nutrition programs to develop long-term solutions, particularly for Indigenous communities, veterans, and LGBTQ folks of all ages. Ahmadiyya Muslim Youth Association (AMYA) works to engage young people in Muslim communities to support food security, and Islamic Relief USA provides food aid and relief to vulnerable communities regardless of race, faith, or gender.

While I was at COP27, the U.N. Climate Change Conference, in Egypt last month, I was talking with an Indigenous leader about the tradition of saying grace before a meal. Most of these prayers focus on being thankful for the food on our plates, we observed—but what about the systems that got the food there? Does our mealtime gratitude extend to the labor and resource inputs and water and air that helps food grow? The people who harvested it, processed it, delivered it, cooked it?

In Dr. Carter’s view, that’s what religion—and food justice—is actually about: Recognizing and supporting these connections. Knowing we’re not alone and that we need community. And being grateful for it all.

I hope you’ll listen to my full conversation with Dr. Christopher Carter from the University of San Diego on the podcast Food Talk with Dani Nierenberg HERE, and please share your thoughts with me at danielle@foodtank.com.

(Danielle Nierenberg via s1.csa1.acemsd1.com  is the President of Food Tank and can be reached at danielle@foodtank.com)