During this season of fasting, it is appropriate for us to reconsider our spiritual relationship with food. Beyond counting calories or even finding nutrient-dense or frugal foods, let us consider the social and environmental cost of our food.
Catholics believe in the mystical Body of Christ, meaning that everyone who is a child of God, living or dead, is connected in Christ’s Body like the Vine and the branches. What one person does, for good or for ill, cannot help but affect others in the same body. Feeding the mystical body is much like feeding the human body. It needs to be done properly.
When we eat a meal in America, we are doing both. We feed our own body and want to choose the most nutritious foods possible for our health. At the same time, we vote with our dollar three times a day when we purchase our meals – how the food was raised, how it was transported, the conditions of the workers along the way. We feed our families daily and rarely stop to think of our food’s impact on the rest of the mystical Body.
I finally got to see Food, Inc. recently, and if you’ve ever seen it or read about the conditions under which human workers raise our food, your conscience is instantly pricked. Each of the seven themes of Catholic Social teaching are easily applied to the issue of food and how it is grown and processed in America today.
- Life and Dignity of the Human Person: The United States Council of Catholic Bishops explain: “The measure of every institution if whether it threatens or enhances the life and dignity of the human person.” CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation) are known for desensitizing the human worker, and major corporations often lock farmers in to their contracts, simply because they can. Does it enhance the dignity of the human person for a chicken farmer to go hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt just so they can have a job feeding cheap food to the rest of us?
- Call to Family, Community, and Participation: “We believe people have a right and a duty to participate in society, seeking together the common good and well-being of all, especially the poor and vulnerable.” Many of those who work in the food processing, especially meat processing industries, are the poor and vulnerable, and they’re being taken advantage of.
- Rights and Responsibilities: We all have a right to life and decency, and with those rights come the responsibility to the larger society. If I further the days of my life by purchasing food that denatures our American heartland, I’m out of balance.
- Option for the Poor and Vulnerable: “A basic moral test is how our most vulnerable members are faring.” Farmers and factory workers, often migrant or illegals, aren’t faring very well when it comes to the big food processors.
- The Dignity of Work and the Rights of Workers: “The economy must serve people, not the other way around. Work is more than a way to make a living; it is a form of continuing participation in God’s creation.” One can’t help but fall in love with the natural symbiosis of Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm. He epitomizes working to continue in God’s creation. In my opinion, the industrial corn fields saturated with chemical fertilizers and the hundreds of thousands of farm animals in this country eating foods their bodies weren’t created to eat are precisely the opposite. So many of the food factory and food processing jobs are without dignity or productivity.
- Solidarity: Not only are we called to subdue the earth and be good stewards of creation, but we must realize that each of our actions affects so many in ever-widening circles in our shrinking global society.
- Care for God’s Creation: “Care for the earth is not just an Earth Day slogan, it is a requirement of our faith…This environmental challenge has fundamental moral and ethical dimensions that cannot be ignored.” Sustainable agriculture is not just a term to be thrown around in discussion or a pie in the sky afterthought. We’ve only got one earth, and we’ve got to stop messing around with it. Will the soil under the “amber waves of grain” in the American midwest ever be able to recover its fertility after decades of a monoculture crop leaching the same nutrients out year after year? I don’t want to live in a dead land, but a natural world teeming with life, from the soil to the treetops. We must stop playing God and circumventing all the incredible natural strategies God has given us to allow us to grow healthy crops without taking more from the earth than we give back.
Pope Benedict XVI’s thoughts on the subject, from his message for the World Day of Peace, 2008:
The family needs a home, a fit environment in which to develop its proper relationships. For the human family, this home is the earth, the environment that God the Creator has given us to inhabit with creativity and responsibility. We need to care for the environment: it has been entrusted to men and women to be protected and cultivated with responsible freedom, with the good of all as a constant guiding criterion. Human beings, obviously, are of supreme worth vis-à-vis creation as a whole. Respecting the environment does not mean considering material or animal nature more important than man. Rather, it means not selfishly considering nature to be at the complete disposal of our own interests, for future generations also have the right to reap its benefits and to exhibit towards nature the same responsible freedom that we claim for ourselves. Nor must we overlook the poor, who are excluded in many cases from the goods of creation destined for all. Humanity today is rightly concerned about the ecological balance of tomorrow. It is important for assessments in this regard to be carried out prudently, in dialogue with experts and people of wisdom, uninhibited by ideological pressure to draw hasty conclusions, and above all with the aim of reaching agreement on a model of sustainable development capable of ensuring the well-being of all while respecting environmental balances.
I encourage you to take some time this Lent to pray about your food choices. Begin to allow God to show you how connected your palate is to peace and justice, and ask Him what He wants you to do about it.