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What is the connection between the Gospel and the food we eat?

  • Written by Tom Sheridan & Liz Quirin for CNS
  • Published in World
Farmers harvest cabbages at a farm near Shenyang, China. CNS Photo Farmers harvest cabbages at a farm near Shenyang, China.
This edition of Viewpoints looks at the question: What is the connection between the Gospel and the food we eat? Tom Sheridan, former editor of the Catholic New World, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Chicago, and a deacon ordained for the Diocese of Joliet, Ill., says that creating justice and ending hunger are both rooted in the good earth. Liz Quirin, editor of The Messenger, newspaper of the Diocese of Belleville, Ill., says that each day, farmers rise and face whatever challenges they meet, and they need our prayers.

Planting crops and growing justice

It’s a good bet that Mary never tossed Jesus a couple of coins and sent him to the grocery store for a quart of milk and a loaf of bread.

That’s what kids did when I was young. I sure did.

First was the grocer on the block where I lived. It was an old-timey place, high ceilings, wood floors, baskets of fruits and vegetables scattered around. Not much self-service; clerks plucked boxes from the high shelves with long tongs.

A few years later and a few blocks away a new world dawned: The era of the supermarket had begun. Clean aisles, bright lights, easy-to-reach shelves and row after row of meat, veggies and other staples crisply wrapped in gleaming plastic.

Jesus wouldn’t have recognized it.

The people of Jesus’ time knew where their food came from — the fields and farms and pastures on the nearby hillsides. Sadly, we’ve become disconnected from the food that nourishes us. It’s easy to forget that our food isn’t created, plastic-wrapped, in the supermarket. It comes from farmers and agricultural workers.

There’s a Gospel connection to our food that Catholics must never forget.

Pope Francis, perhaps calling on his Latin American heritage, uses farm-based metaphors. He likes to tell clergy that they must to be close to the people they serve. They should smell of the flock, he says. The smell of the flock is also the smell of the farm. Sheep may be a reference to people, but they are also, well, sheep. Think lamb chops and wool.

Farms and food production are too often overlooked in today’s world in which fewer and fewer people actually live and work on farms. Overlooked, too, is the need for justice for those workers. The church is concerned about farm-and-food issues such as the environment, hunger and justice for small and family farmers, and workers, who are often immigrant laborers.

In 2003, the U.S. bishops released a pastoral letter, “For I Was Hungry and You Gave Me Food: Catholic Reflections on Food, Farmers and Farmworkers.”

It recognized the role food and food production play in today’s world and decried the injustices that affect the system. It’s a good read for those who forget that tonight’s dinner didn’t magically appear on the plate.

Because of the high percentage of farmworkers who are migrants or people living in the country without legal permission, our dinner plates are also connected to a just immigration policy. And a wise stewardship of the land is a keystone of preserving a wholesome and safe environment for our children’s children.

Those fields and farms and pastures outside Jesus’ growing-up village provided a good diet: grain for bread, grapes, olives, fish and lamb, vegetables. What goes around comes around: Today we call that the Mediterranean Diet. And it’s quite a fad, even if our fruits and veggies come from California or Chile. But it is healthy.

But there’s a dark side, too: hunger. As many as 48 million Americans — and three-quarters of a billion worldwide — suffer from food insecurity. Farmworkers and family farmers are often among those who are affected.

There’s enough food, but a “culture of waste,” overconsumption and distribution difficulties create what Pope Francis has called a “paradox of plenty.” It’s sad that in a world of plenty there is need. The pope has called for more investmentin agriculture and a rethinking of food distribution to reduce global hunger. 

Perhaps we should call it the gospel of food because creating justice and ending hunger are both rooted in the good earth.    

Making sure God’s creation remains good

While my parents grew up on farms, I know next to nothing about real farming because I grew up in a city. But my parents brought a tiny piece of the farm along with them.

We had animals — dogs, cats, geese and chickens — but no cows, horses, hogs or other four-legged critters known on the farm. We had fresh vegetables, which I didn’t like, preferring canned vegetables as more exotic. I was, in short, woefully misinformed with a very low-class palate. 

These days, I look at family farmers with awe because of the high costs, the regulations and the dangers of farming they live with daily, while pursuing a way of life they love. While it must be satisfying to plant in the spring and look forward to watching the plants push their way through the soil, I would be worrying about the bugs, the sun, the rain, the various bacteria that could kill this crop before it ripens for harvest.

Farmers watch and sometimes worry but somehow that doesn’t stop them from looking forward to the next day’s sun, the next week’s rain and hoping it will come on time and in the right amount. At their core, farmers must be believers, optimists that pray and trust God.

Without God, farming would be a lonely and more difficult way to live.

When the crops look good and the summer sun shines down on a cornfield with ears growing well on stalks straight and tall, farmers offer prayers of thanksgiving. However, in the late summer when everyone is thinking of harvest, and floodwaters rise to drown those crops, it’s discouraging to say the least.

 Problems — or “challenges,” as people would rather say — abound for farmers: the cost of fertilizers and chemicals continues to rise; regulations about seeds continue to cause consternation among various groups of people, and water-use rights are driving people apart, to name just a few issues plaguing those who grow our food.

Add to that, people who shop at stores and live in towns don’t really know what goes into growing the food they so nonchalantly put into their carts. 

Jesus didn’t talk about the fertilizers to be spread, the tractors needed, the literal, emotional, philosophical and theological “costs” of farming, but He did talk about workers in the vineyard, about sewing seed and soil; and God, in Genesis, talks about creating the Earth.

We, through our Catholic faith, are united to farmers on a deep level even if we don’t know them personally. If we were more connected to farmers and the land, perhaps we would be more understanding of some of the challenges they face in trying to provide the world with food. 

Each day, farmers rise and face whatever challenges they meet, and they need our prayers.

Too often, the small farmers can’t make it when their crops burn or drown, their equipment breaks down and can no longer be repaired, or when the bank must be paid even when the money isn’t in the account. It doesn’t happen every time, but it can happen.

Large farms face problems as well, and we often describe “corporate” farms in negative language. If the farm owners are completely removed from the land and the animals, it’s difficult to see anything but the bottom line, which obscures what’s happening to soil and animals.

Those issues must be addressed and problems rectified, or we will eventually reap the whirlwind.

We have to remember that God saw what he created as “good,” and we must continue to make sure God’s creation remains good.

Articles written by Tom Sheridan &  Liz Quirin for CNS
Last modified onMonday, 15 August 2016 15:43
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