Sunday, September 23, 2012
This time of year brings up images of bounty and abundance – apples, pumpkins, corn, grain. It is a time when we harvest the seeds that were planted in the spring, when we manifest spirit into matter. Food has always been the focus of the harvest. The abundance of autumn prepares us for the lean winter.
We have so much food in this country. It’s available everywhere – grocery stores, restaurants, street corners, produce stands. Every social gathering has some element of food connected to it. In our Sunday School classes and fellowship hour, the sharing of food is an essential part of building community.
I have not known much food scarcity in my life. Even though my parents had a fairly low income when I was growing up, we always had some sort of food on the table. We did not always have exactly what we wanted, but we always had everything we needed. I know firsthand that there are food-assistance programs. These social services are not easy to navigate, and some people in this country do starve, but most of the poorest among us have access to food.
The clearest memory I have of food scarcity came when I was an adult, and it was related to disaster rather than economics. We lived in Baton Rouge, Louisiana during Hurricane Katrina. We didn’t have a television and our internet was down, so we did not know what was happening in New Orleans. But when I ventured out to the grocery store to replenish our supplies after the storm was over, I was shocked. There was no food. Not just a few things were missing from the shelves. The supply trucks could not get through. There were a few canned items and such left, but everything else was gone. The population of Baton Rouge had tripled overnight. It took months before there were enough supplies for the surge of population.
But there are places in our world that never have enough supplies. It’s not a specific disaster, just a way of life. In a statement from June of 2012, “The UN has sounded the alarm about a full-fledged food crisis in the 21 century.” Over 1 billion people across the globe are starving and another 2 billions are malnourished, while Europe and the US are paradoxically fighting unprecedentedly high levels of obesity. Some have too much, while others, many of whom are producing most of the food, have too little.
Food production has been a cause of tension and war since early in human history. A number of scholars have proposed that the biblical story of Cain and Abel is really about the agricultural revolution. (See this link among many others.) Going back to the beginning, Adam and Eve lived as gatherers in paradise, in the Garden of Eden. After gaining the knowledge of good and evil, they are cast out of the garden and punished through “toil” of the land. The culmination of the conflict shows through their children. Abel, who raises livestock, represents the pastoral hunters and gatherers. Cain cultivates the land, and thus he represents agriculture. The brothers each offer a sacrifice to God. Abel offers a blood sacrifice of animals, while Cain offers vegetables. God favors the earlier, less “civilized” hunter-gatherer and pastoral culture, but agriculture violently overcomes when Cain kills Abel. The agricultural revolution caused major changes in society. Growing food did not require the efforts of the entire tribe, so some people now had the free time to develop philosophy, art, science, music - civilization. This allowed humanity to develop new talents and resources, but it also disconnected many of us from the sources of our food.
In a close analysis of this passage, Islamic sociologist Ali Shariati concludes, “This inevitable revolution of the future will be the culmination of the contradiction that began with the battle of Cain and Abel and has continued to exist in all human societies, between the ruler and the ruled. The inevitable outcome of history will be the triumph of justice, equity and truth. It is the responsibility of every man in every age to determine his stance in the constant struggle of the two wings we have described, and not to remain a spectator.” (Shariati, On theSociology of Islam)
We cannot afford to be spectators in this. Food is too important, too much a part of who we are. We literally are what we eat – the very molecules and amino acids of our food become the building blocks that form our bodies. And our relationship to food is also connected to issues of social justice and equality.
But how often do we even think about the food we eat? I know I have long had a complicated relationship with food, as do most people in our society. We treat food as a reward or celebration when good things happen. Then we treat food as a comfort or solace when bad things happen. When we’re bored, we mindlessly consume empty calories.
Geneen Roth, author of Women, Food, and God, writes,
“The bottom line, whether you weigh 340 lbs or 150 lbs, is that when you eat when you are not hungry, you are using food as a drug, grappling with boredom or illness or loss or grief or emptiness or loneliness or rejection. Food is only the middleman, the means to the end. Of altering your emotions. Of making yourself numb. Of creating a secondary problem when the original problem becomes too uncomfortable. Of dying slowly rather than coming to terms with your messy, magnificent and very, very short – even at a hundred years old – life” (52).
Roth teaches that our relationship with food goes beyond the physical into the spiritual, and that often we try to fill our suffering with food. She writes:
“During the first few bites, and before we get dazed by overeating, everything we want is possible. Everything we’ve lost is here and now. And so we settle for the concrete version of our lost selves in the form of food. And once food has become synonymous with goodness or love or fulfillment, we cannot help but choose it, no matter how high the stakes are.” (175)
I recently began paying a lot more attention to my diet. By eating less, I paid attention to what kinds of food and what quality of food I was eating. I was amazed to see how many times I ate food I didn’t really like just because it was there. Or because I failed to plan ahead and found myself out and about but extremely hungry. It took a lot of effort to change my habits, but I certainly feel better about myself.
But there’s nothing simple in the world of ethical eating. I’ve always liked really good tomatoes. In fact, when I was in college my friends called me the "Tomato Goddess." Bring me libations of tomatoes and I will bless you. But unless I get them from a Farmer’s Market, most of the mass-produced tomatoes taste like cardboard. As part of my conscious effort to eat better, a couple of months ago I started getting heirloom tomatoes from Trader Joes. They are more expensive, but I felt good that I am eating better food. Then, this past week at a meeting with my fellow religious educators, one of my colleagues, Mandy Neff from First Parish in Cambridge, told me about a social action campaign that she did with the students in her parish. While studying the peace and justice issues of immigration, Mandy invited a representative from the union of immigrant “tomato-pickers” to speak to the kids. They were in the process of negotiating a minimal increase in price of tomatoes with several grocery stores, including Trader Joes. The kids wrote postcards and made signs shaped like tomatoes. They also convinced their parents not to shop at Trader Joes until the matter was resolved (and it was eventually resolved). I was amazed. I thought that my choice to shop for the more expensive tomatoes at Trader Joes was enough. I honestly had not thought at all about the people picking those tomatoes.
For every tomato that I eat, someone prepared the seeds, tilled the soil, and planted it. Thousands of tiny insects and other beings gave up their lives in the process. Someone made sure it had adequate sun and water and was kept safe from pests (even without chemical pesticides). Someone watched until it was time and then picked it. And packaged and shipped and marketed it. So much effort was involved. And that is just a single tomato.
How can we honor the effort, the sacrifices made for our food? Pay attention. Mindfulness goes a long way.
How mindful are you about your food choices? Whether you eat vegetables or meat, homegrown organic or drive-thru fast food, are you paying attention to the food that will become you?
Do you pray before your meals? It doesn’t matter if you pray to a God or simply take a moment to honor the energy that went into bringing this food to you.
In my personal spiritual tradition, we offer this prayer before meals:
Manifesting as the divine, we receive this food as a sacred offering, celebrating our interconnectedness with all of life. May it nourish us and strengthen us that we may be able to bring benefit to all we touch.
In this we honor our own inherent worth and dignity. In our tradition, this means we are physical manifestations of divine spirit. The food we consume is sacred. It is as meaningful to us as the offerings that Cain and Abel offered to God. We are infinitely interconnected to the web of all existence, of which we are a part. We honor the sacrifices of those beings who gave their lives for us to eat. And we know that it is worth it because this food will now give us strength to do the powerful work we are meant to do in the world.
We close the prayer with the syllables “Om Ah Hung.” Om means “immeasurable greatness.” We raise up this food and make it immeasurably great. With the syllable “Ah” we transform it into wisdom nectar, into all that is needed. And with “hung” we satisfy the needs of all beings.
I wish I could say that I offer this prayer every time I eat. I wish I could say that I think carefully about every bite of food and look closely into the social justice issues related to its production. But it’s a start. I hope I’ve given you some food for thought. In the midst of the harvest, together we can plant these seeds for the future. May we reap what we sow.
Om Ah Hung