To Feed People: What it would take to lead a real food revolution

To Feed People:
A Christian reflection on what it would take to lead a real food revolution
by The Rev. Marissa Rohrbach

I was six years old when I fell in love with feeding people. I had only recently discovered that there were people in the world who didn’t have enough to eat—children who went to bed without dinner. It seemed to me that all of God’s children had the right to eat. Because my refrigerator was full, I couldn’t understand why any of the grown-ups allowed this to continue. How could anyone live with themselves in a world where kids are hungry? I had been taught that God wanted us to help each other and to treat each other as we, ourselves, would want to be treated. Like all kids, I had a deep sense of this fairness, and though I wouldn’t have called it justice at the time, I wanted to see us do justice. So, at the age of six, I decided to take matters into my own hands.

At our church, all of the children were given pledge envelopes to encourage us to learn how to give. We were encouraged to do odd jobs for our parents to earn some coins or collect the loose change around the house. Everyone else’s envelopes made a metallic thud sound when they hit the table in front of them or banged against another envelope in the collection basket. Everyone else’s were neatly folded, closed tightly, and perfectly sized. Not mine. Mine were oddly shaped, bursting at the seams. Along with coins, they carried candy, gum, vegetable seeds, and tiny packets of pretzels. I imagined our envelopes being sent to kids who needed the money and kids who would be excited that someone had thought to send them the good stuff, too.

Ever since then, I have longed to feed people. I started small, taking bowls of cereal to my sleeping parents. Finally, deciding to capitalize on the urge, my dad taught me how to make omelets. I remember the first time I saw milk slide into a bowl with eggs and the feeling of whipping it with a fork until it was mixed, speckled with bubbles. I remember the rush of sound when the eggs hit the hot pan. I was hooked. I am rarely happier than when I can experiment with odd and unusual ingredients in cooking. I’m profoundly nerdy about the whole thing, and I love nothing more than introducing the people at our table to food they haven’t experienced before. Like so many others, I watch cooking shows like I’m watching the greatest love stories of our time, but the actors are butter, ghee, and uni. I’m inspired by the technique of people like Thomas Keller and Naomi Pomeroy, challenged by the innovation of chefs like Marcus Samuelsson and Grant Achatz, and comforted by the art created by chefs like Georges Perrier and Eric Ripert. If you want to be one of these chefs when you grow up, then I’m with you. 

At the same time, I can’t help but notice what’s happening in the world around us. While food has become a popular luxury item, more than 21% of children in the United States live in poverty. As more and more Americans experiment with boxes of gourmet food delivered directly to their doorsteps from companies like Blue Apron, one in six Americans faces hunger. How do we make sense of the fact that 49 million Americans are struggling to feed their families? As the food industry grows, the gap seems to be widening between those of us who can afford to be foodies and our neighbors who live in food deserts. What’s truly tragic about this is that I believe we have the opportunity, through food, to change so much more than who is hungry. 

It would be an understatement to say that food has a profound effect on our lives. On a small level, we know how our hunger affects us: we get grumpy when we skip lunch or irritable if we miss dinner. More importantly, though, hunger has severe chemical effects on our minds and bodies. Hunger limits our ability to focus and think. Hunger slows our brain development, limits our growth, and makes it much harder for us to perform tasks. Hunger, over a sustained period of time, ultimately results in lower brain capacity and function, making it more difficult for someone who has experienced long-term hunger to relate to the world and to people around them. This presents both social and educational issues, which linger throughout our whole lives. Across our nation, dotted throughout urban settings, there are communities where residents have limited or no access to healthy, affordable food. The first time I heard about these urban food deserts was because of First Lady Michele Obama’s work to eliminate “nutritional wastelands” as part of her Let’s Move! campaign. At the time, in 2010, an estimated 6.5 million children and 23.5 million adults lived in food deserts. It was around this time that scientists and anthropologists began to seriously look at the intersection of food accessibility and community health. One voice that emerged during this time was that of Dr. Lynn Todman. Working in some of the toughest neighborhoods of Chicago, Todman began to see strong connections between hunger and violence. She maintains that the “food environment” can have profound and wide-reaching effects on the residents of a particular community. What kinds of food are available and whether or not food is affordable has concrete effects on one’s quality of life. 

 Not surprisingly, food, or the lack thereof, helps to determine how well the residents of a particular neighborhood live and work together. It has an effect on how much pride residents take in their homes and how they choose to engage with the world around them. It is a major determinant in the decisions residents make regarding their own safety and that of their families. It seems an obvious thing, perhaps, but as much as we have dissected the politics of poverty, we have ultimately failed to take seriously this essential building block of life: food. 

In my own work, I know hunger to be the source of great stress and sadness. As a clergy person, I am the keeper of stories—the safe place where many people tell the stories they wouldn’t feel comfortable telling anyone else. I know families struggling to make ends meet and parents who make decisions they wouldn’t otherwise make in order to feed their families. For some of these people, their deep hopes are that their children will have better lives, and they are willing to make dangerous sacrifices to make it so. I’ve seen with my own eyes the broken hearts of parents with hungry children, and I have listened as they describe a sense of defeat or a sense of fear that they will not be able to provide. In the face of this, it seems there is a simple solution, doesn’t it? To feed people?

The meal, the simple food, coupled with time together was easing tensions and healing rifts—it was creating space for new relationships and for a sense of community in our part of the city.
— The Rev. Marissa Rohrbach

In July, we held a communal meal at the church I’m serving in Connecticut. We set up long communal tables in our parking lot, grilled lots of chicken, chopped vegetables, and shared an old-fashioned barbeque with the neighborhood. We intentionally invited the folks who come to our Food Pantry, posted invitations on community forums, and called out to anyone who happened to be walking by. In the midst of this great meal, I noticed that my parishioners were sitting and eating with members of our larger community—African-American, Latino, Asian, and Caucasian people, all with different means and resources, all with different backgrounds and stories, all eating together. There were new immigrants sitting with those whose families have been here for generations. I heard Arabic, Spanish, Korean, and English. Conflicts known to me in the past had dissipated. One man, who we’ll call Eric, came up to me and said, “I can’t remember the last time I was invited to anything. And I can’t remember the last time I ate real food.” The meal, the simple food, coupled with time together was easing tensions and healing rifts—it was creating space for new relationships and for a sense of community in our part of the city. 

You may be thinking that hunger can’t be blamed for everything, that it can’t be the root of all the challenges we face in food deserts and in our relationships with each other. And of course, you’re right. Hunger, like poverty, is the symptom of other systemic failures, but it does significantly contribute to the overall health of our communities. While hunger is far from being our only problem, we cannot continue to ignore the possibility that it could be a significant part of the solution to our communal ills.

In the last ten years, many industries have struggled, evolved, and experienced recessions while the “foodie revolution” has raged on; there are more cookbooks, recipe websites, and foodie apps than ever before. According to marketingcharts.com, eight out of ten of American adults watch cooking shows, and these cooking shows inspire us not only to eat more but also to purchase more. There is a fortune made in the food industry every day.

We foodies have an immense amount of buying power and influence; we have capital that we could use to put pressure on the industry to start a real revolution. I’ve been thinking quite a lot lately about an unattributed quote that has made its way around the internet as an image. The words on a plain white banner read: “If it’s inaccessible to the poor, it’s neither radical nor revolutionary.” What could be more inaccessible to the poor than our beloved foodie revolution? It’s time for faithful foodies to ask the difficult questions.

On all of the cooking competition shows, people talk about their “food dreams.” They want to win so they can write a cookbook or open a restaurant. My food dream is a true revolution of radical foodies making beautiful, healthy food that is accessible to the poor not only because our faith expects it of us but also because we have the power to create change. My food dream is about people of faith meeting at the intersection of art, justice, and community organizing to use our influence over an industry that has the power to change our culture. 

I am convinced that to do this we only need to build food dream coalitions—partnerships with people in diverse communities who have a passion for this work. I see an incredible opportunity for people of all faiths to work together. We have thousands of years of experience when it comes to setting tables and telling our stories. We should be sharing food with our neighbors as a model of peace-making and justice-seeking. By extending our tables and sharing our stories, we come to a better place of understanding. In the present moment, we could all benefit from coming to know and to respect each other’s stories and from breaking bread with one another to understand each other across divisive and painful boundaries. 

I wish it was as easy as sliding small, non-perishable items into envelopes, but it’s not. Instead, solving the hunger problem in this country and around the world will require a multi-faceted approach, but I think it’s time for us to pursue those food dreams. It’s time for the faithful foodies to be truly revolutionary. §

Issue 06
from 20.00
 

The Rev. Marissa Rohrbach is an Episcopal priest and community organizer with a special interest in the intersections of religion, food justice, racism, and gender. She studied at Yale Divinity School and at Berkeley Divinity School and serves as the Rector of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Meriden, CT.