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A Theology of Food

“Eating is an agricultural act.”
-Wendell Berry


For those who pursue a life of faith, there is an ongoing discussion of how people ought to live in order to be more fully human, to seek “the good life.” Within this discussion there is often an emphasis on theology, the study of the nature of God. In order to understand ourselves, we rightly look to the One who created us for answers. Conclusions on what constitutes the good life are both material and immaterial, following a God who became manifest in the person of Jesus while simultaneously existing in a heavenly realm beyond our understanding. As such, Christians are encouraged to participate in the material world in a way that produces flourishing while simultaneously remaining set apart through immaterial acts, such as wonder, self-denial, and prayer. The realms of material and immaterial cannot be completely separated, however. Our actions inform our relationship with God and vice versa. As such, everything we say, do, and think, as well as everything we abstain from saying, doing, and thinking presents opportunities for worship and for the flourishing of ourselves and our communities. Although many recognize this truth, few explore its implications to their fullest extent. I will focus on one such area that Christians approach but rarely enter fully: food.

Time and time again, Christians emphasize the importance of sharing meals as part of the good life. We rightly recognize that community flourishes around a table with friends, family, and even strangers. Indeed, there is no better way to express hospitality than inviting others into one’s home and cooking food for them. There is no better way to learn about a new culture than sharing meals with natives. There is no better way to make friends than cooking, eating, and drinking. Yet somewhere in these celebrations we have lost the importance of the actual food that is being served on our plates. Amidst the joy of eating, drinking and being merry we have ceased asking about our food’s source and its impact on our bodies, our world, and our relationship with God.

Food is never value-neutral. Indeed, it always has a story that is marked by flourishing and/or suffering. To offer a quick and somewhat oversimplified example, this is evident in seeking the origins of one simple piece of fruit. You may enter a grocery store, pick up an orange, peel off the sticker and read that it is classified as a “Valencia.” This orange was likely grown in California in a field with rows of lush trees speckled with orange bulbs. The trees were likely sprayed with pesticides and herbicides throughout the spring and summer months before the orange harvest, which was likely accomplished by immigrants who were paid well below a living wage for their work. The many oranges gathered were then placed in a crate and transported to a processing facility where workers took stock of the new inventory, weeded out the unsatisfactory crop, and packaged the oranges for sale. These packages were loaded onto trucks and shipped across the country, several of which found their way to a grocery store down the street from your house. Your simple afternoon snack has a story which impacted the lives of field workers, a farm owner, truckers, and all of their respective families. Furthermore, the story includes environmental impacts as the orange took in carbon dioxide and gave off oxygen, was sprayed with pesticides and herbicides that killed other living organisms and polluted the air, and required burning greenhouse gases for shipment.

The story of one orange is incredible! This is especially true given the reality that an orange is a very simple food. Imagine how extensive the stories of processed foods are. With elaborate packaging and long lists of ingredients, some of which are nearly impossible to pronounce, these foods touch the lives of many people and impact the planet in innumerable ways before making their way to customers. Even with such extensive backgrounds, the story of food does not end when it is purchased at a grocery store, farmer’s market, or plucked from one’s backyard garden. As soon as someone consumes food, she becomes part of its story. The food’s nutritional makeup will proceed to impact her body in simple but profound ways. A pot of coffee can provide the necessary caffeine to stay up late and finish one’s senior thesis. A plate of pasta can supply a runner with needed carbs to compete in an upcoming marathon. A donut in the morning can lead to lethargic feelings, making one unmotivated to perform work throughout the day. Once consumed, food really does become part of one’s self, and its story continues. You are, indeed, what you eat.

In light of the prior discussion, it is evident that the story of food matters for those seeking to become fully human. Therefore, as Christians we need to develop a theology of food. How does the nature of God inform what we eat, where we eat it, who we eat with, and what we do with the calories and nutrients (or lack thereof) from our meals? First and foremost, we must understand God’s nature. In doing so, it is helpful to start with the book of Genesis. In this story of creation, God created sky, water, vegetation, birds, animals and fish of all kinds and called it all good[2]. Furthermore, God created humans in God’s image, gave them responsibility over all of the created order, and called it very good[3]. As such, all of humanity has been given the incredible task of caring for everything God made and loves. This truth is of utmost importance when developing a theology of food because there is perhaps nothing that connects humans to the rest of creation more powerfully than the food we eat. All food has stories that impact other people, animals, insects, plants, water, and air; thus, we ought to eat food with beautiful stories that please God and fulfill the human responsibility to steward creation.

In order to do so, we must first become students of our plates. We cannot only choose items based on the market indicators of price, efficiency, and pleasure. Rather, we should learn as much as possible about our foods and develop relationships along the way. As we look into the stories of our food we must seek to minimize abuse and maximize flourishing. It is an unfortunate but true reality that the stories of many foods include abuse, suffering, and cruelty. Most animal products, for example, are marred by cruelty.

The story of broiler chickens portrays this well. In their natural habitat, chickens can live over twenty years and enjoy roaming around, foraging for food and perching in trees. They are surprisingly intelligent and can solve math problems, share information generationally, recognize up to 100 other birds by their facial features, and communicate with a unique language[4]. God’s distinctive design is evident in these beautiful birds that were created to flourish. Conversely, the life of a broiler chicken raised for meat in the United States is entirely void of flourishing. When eggs are laid they are taken from their mothers and placed in an incubator. One day after birth, chicks are transported to rearing farms where they will spend the rest of their short lives. Standard facilities contain tens of thousands of birds who are crammed tightly together, unable to turn around, and live in either complete darkness or artificial light. While living in these facilities the chickens are injected with hormones in order to grow faster and larger than nature allows. As a result, chickens’ legs often break underneath them, causing them to spend the remainder of their lives sitting in feces. These chickens are eventually collected to be slaughtered after 47 days of life (quite a contrast to those that live over 20 years in nature)[5]. Chickens are taken from the rearing facilities and crammed into crates, stacked on trucks, and transported to slaughterhouses. Upon arrival at the slaughterhouse, chickens are clamped upside down on a moving metal rack and dragged through splashing electrified water, known as a “stunner,” intended to keep them from moving during the slaughter. After being paralyzed, the chickens’ throats are cut by a rotating blade while they are still conscious. After bleeding out for 90 seconds some birds remain alive while others are dead. Regardless, they are all dumped into tanks of scalding water to burn off feathers and complete the slaughter[6]. The raw meat is then treated with antibiotics or bleach to kill the many diseases that thrive in the miserable conditions these chickens lived in. Thereafter, the meat is packaged and shipped to your local grocery store.

This is part of the story of billions of chickens every year. Remaining chapters in the story are similarly marred with cruelty and sadness, including the difficult lives of illegal immigrants who are recruited to work on these farms and suffer mental hardship from torturing animals daily, only to be paid with blood-soaked hands and a meager salary. The stories of pork, beef, and even eggs, butter, and cow’s milk are just as bleak. Perhaps most church cook-outs and potlucks are far more connected to cruelty than they ought to be. Yet while the story of many food products is saddening, there are undoubtedly products that contribute to flourishing for all of creation. Examples of this abound at local markets where farmers are committed to caring for their soil and animals, and produce food without causing unnecessary harm by abstaining from pesticides, herbicides, growth hormones, and antibiotics. Yet even with farmers’ markets booming across the United States, in the complex global markets of the 21st century it is unrealistic to imagine an entire population buying food solely from farmers. Therefore, it is important to identify other food producers who are also contributing to holistic flourishing.

One prime example is Greyston Bakery, located in Southwest Yonkers, NY. With a tagline stating, “We don’t hire people to bake brownies, we bake brownies to hire people,” Greyston has an incredible mission and its products have incredible stories[7]. First and foremost, Greyston’s open hiring policies give everyone who is willing an opportunity to work. This specifically targets those who are discriminated against by typical hiring policies and are considered “hard to employ,” including people experiencing homelessness, people with a criminal record, and people who do not speak English. Furthermore, although Greyston Bakery is a for-profit business, all of its profits go to the Greyston Foundation, a non-profit organization committed to holistic community development in Southwest Yonkers. This occurs through initiatives to provide affordable housing, workforce development, childcare, and community gardens throughout local neighborhoods. Finally, Greyston Bakery utilizes ingredients with integrity, like cage free eggs in their brownies[8]. Thus, the stories of goods made at Greyston are moving: those baking the brownies have found hope and restoration from a broken system, the local community is impacted on a grassroots level that meets people’s material needs while seeking to address systematic cycles of poverty, ingredients are sourced responsibly which provides livelihoods for hardworking farmers, and, finally, customers enjoy delicious treats. In light of the contrasting stories of a typical poultry farm and Greyston Bakery it is evident that all foods have stories, and that those stories matter.

It is similarly important to note that the story of food does not end with producers. Once you have purchased and/or consumed a given food you become part of its story. As noted previously, God created humans, called them good, and gave them tasks consisting of both creative and manual labor. As such, it is important to consume foods that will result in intellectual and physical flourishing for the benefit of one’s self and the common good. Within this assertion is a belief that the human body is a gift from God and an example of God’s handiwork. From the intricacies of the brain to the complexities of the musculoskeletal system, the human body is simply incredible. Its ability to run miles upon miles without stopping, solve complex math problems, build muscle to the point of lifting hundreds of pounds, and create beautiful art cannot be understated. In order to use one’s body to its fullest potential one must intake proper nutrition. Although it is frequently recognized that athletes must maintain a healthy diet to pursue their sports, it is rarely recognized that artists, pastors and authors should do the same. There are vast links between diet and cognitive ability, making it a responsibility of every individual and every community to ensure that its members are eating well. Perceptions regarding what a balanced diet looks like and the health standards that people should strive toward will vary from community to community and should not become legalistic. Yet health is good and necessary in serving God to the fullest of one’s abilities. As such, we must remember our place in the story of our food.

In sum, food matters. When seeking to live the good life we must turn to God and understand God’s nature. Not only is God a communal being who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but God is also creator who made the heavens and earth. Developing a proper relationship with food should be a central aspect of theology. In looking to God’s communal being we see that food is best when shared with friends, family, neighbors, and even strangers. Yet our theology of food cannot end here. We should not pray to God before eating and ask for God’s blessing if our plates contain food with stories of abuse, torture, and sadness. Therefore, we must be mindful of these stories and eat foods that produce flourishing for everyone involved in the story, including producers, animals, ourselves, and our communities. In doing so, we will enjoy our daily bread, glorify God, and develop a proper theology of food.

Notes:
[1] “The Pleasure of Eating,” Rodale’s Organic Life, accessed March 4, 2016, http://www.rodalesorganiclife.com/wellbeing/wendell-berry-pleasure-eating
[2] Gen. 1:1-25 (NASB)
[3] Gen. 1:26-31 (NASB)
[4] Mercy for Animals, Vegetarian Stater Guide, 4
[5] “The Life of: Broiler Chickens,” Compassion in World Farming, accessed March 5, 2016, http://www.ciwf.org.uk/media/5235306/The-life-of-Broiler-chickens.pdf
[6] “Poultry Slaughter: The Need for Legislation,” United Poultry Concerns, accessed March 5, 2016, http://www.upc-online.org/slaughter/poultry_slaughter.pdf
[7] “About Greyston,” Greyston, accessed March 5, 2016, http://greyston.com/
[8] Although cage free eggs come from chickens living in better situations than those trapped in cages they can still come from sad stories. Labels like ‘cage-free’, ‘grass-fed’, and ‘organic’ are often stretched and don’t tell the full story. To accomplish holistic flourishing, using eggs from farmers who you know and who treat their chickens well, or egg-substitutes made from quality plant-based products is preferable.
References:
“About Greyston.” Greyston. Accessed March 5, 2016, http://greyston.com/.
Mercy for Animals. Vegetarian Stater Guide, 4.
“Poultry Slaughter: The Need for Legislation.” United Poultry Concerns. Accessed March 5,        2016. http://www.upc-online.org/slaughter/poultry_slaughter.pdf.
The Holy Bible: New American Standard Bible. New York: American Bible Society, 1991.
“The Life of: Broiler Chickens.” Compassion in World Farming. Accessed March 5, 2016.           http://www.ciwf.org.uk/media/5235306/The-life-of-Broiler-chickens.pdf.
“The Pleasure of Eating.” Rodale’s Organic Life. Accessed March 4, 2016.             http://www.rodalesorganiclife.com/wellbeing/wendell-berry-pleasure-eating.