Sunday, December 1, 2013

Farmworkers and Franciscans

In my previous post, I mentioned how there have been people fasting in a tent on the national mall for immigration reform since November 12th - including over Thanksgiving. I found it more than a little insensitive that most Americans could enjoy a day of feasting in recognition of how welcoming the Native Americans were to pilgrims, while living in the bliss of ignorance or apathy that Congress is stalling a vote on immigration reform - reform that could improve the lives of 11 million aspiring Americans who are currently suffering the impact of deportations, deaths on the border, exploitation at work, and fear of living in the shadows with no path to citizenship.  So I posted about the immigration reform efforts and fasted for part of the day, which made me more conscious and grateful for the food I was eating. But it also made me more conscious of two other things. Seeing food scraps thrown away reminded me of the absurd amount of food that gets thrown away every year (1.3 billion tons) - an unconscionable sin in a world of abundance where so many go hungry. Secondly, preparing food without being able to eat it right away made me think of the plight of the farmworkers who grew the food, as farmers are some of the hungriest people in the world.

This past week (November 24-30) was the second annual International Food Workers Week, which "brings awareness to the issues facing food workers, supports their organizing efforts for fair, sustainable jobs and promotes solidarity among workers all across the food chain." Yet in the US alone, there are nearly 20 million Americans who are often poorly paid, exploited, and can't even afford to put food on their own tables.

Meanwhile, less than two weeks ago (November 19) was the feast day of St. Elizabeth of Hungary, the patron saint of Secular Franciscans - Christians "embedded in the world" who have made a commitment to follow the lifestyle of St. Francis. From Lori Pieper, SFO we learn that St. Elizabeth was a food justice advocate at heart: while born into royalty, she "dedicated herself to the relief of the poor" and "refused any food that might have been unjustly exacted from the peasants by her husband's officials."

What implications does this have for those who strive to follow in the footsteps of St. Francis of Assisi?  St. Francis saw everyone and everything as his brothers and sisters, seeing God in the eyes of the poor and in the earth alike. He sought to establish right relationship with creation and with all of humankind.

From Franciscan Br. Keith Warner who has experience working for justice for farmworkers and writes about the close relationship between Franciscan Friars and César Chávez, we can come to understand that ministering to and spending time with the poor and those closest to the earth - to those who grow the very food which we take for granted and eat every day - can have significant spiritual implications as well as deepen our interest in grassroots social movements.

As we finish up our Thanksgiving leftovers, enter into the Advent season and enjoy the bounty of the earth throughout the year, let us not forget the plight of the workers who grow, prepare and serve our food. The Food Chain Workers Alliance organizes and supports workers throughout the year on improving the livelihoods of workers throughout the food chain.   Here is a TEDx talk by Joann Lo about her experiences working with the Food Chain Workers Alliance:

Currently, we have an opportunity to stand with 8 million food system and 21 additional low-wage workers in their request that Congress raise the minimum wage:  in early December, the US Senate is expected to vote on a "Motion to Proceed" on the Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2013, which would raise the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour over the next three years and the tipped minimum wage from $2.13 to 70% of the regular minimum wage.

Let's stand in solidarity with food workers. Here are a couple of actions you can take to learn more and support fair wages and sustainable jobs for workers all across the food chain:

Friday, November 29, 2013

Climate Change, Poverty, Immigration, Solidarity and Hope

Last week I attended a mass at the Church of St. Francis of Assisi for the victims of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines.  It was a Filipino / English mass, attended mostly by Filipinos and from the looks of it only a few non-Filipinos were there in solidarity. They conducted a beautiful ritual in remembrance of the lives lost through the tragedy.

There is so much devastation from the typhoon. More than a million houses have been obliterated and destroyed; 5,560 people have perished and 1,757 more are missing. At least 14 million people have been affected, including 1.8 million displaced children.  Many Filipino islands have disappeared off the map.

It's bad enough the storm hit the country and affected residents so deeply. It has destroyed so many lives and livelihoods and will take years for the country to recover.  But the tragedy is that this has not been an isolated incident. Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Sandy, and so many other disasters in recent history are signs of climate change deeply impacting the world. Natural disasters such as this have been occurring more and more frequently.  And they have been unjustly impacting people in poverty - regardless of the country or city impacted, those in poverty are always the ones who suffer the greatest when disaster strikes. As Onleilove Alston points out in this Sojourners article, "climate change is a poverty issue, a race issue, and an immigration issue."  To not recognize this is to not recognize the interconnectedness of all things and the importance of establishing a right relationship with all of creation.

While the U.S. and other industrialized countries are the most to blame for greenhouse gas emissions and climate change, it's also U.S. policies that are threatening the livelihoods of peasants and poor people worldwide. Disruptions to the ecosystem, corporate land grabs, and dumping of U.S. crops as "food aid" are all factors leading farmers to necessitate abandoning their ways of life.

And then it's again U.S. policies that are challenging people's ability to immigrate to the U.S.. This is depicted clearly in the film The Other Side of Immigration:

We are so close right now to reforming immigration policies, but a bill that would do just this is stalled in Congress. "Every day the House leadership stalls on a vote for immigration reform, families and communities suffer the impact of deportations, deaths on the border, exploitation at work and the fear of living in the shadows with no path to citizenship."  While the U.S. Senate passed a comprehensive, bipartisan immigration bill (S.744) in June, the House has still not brought the issue to the floor for a vote. There have been people fasting for comprehensive immigration reform since November 12th in the hopes of moving the hearts of House Republicans to vote on this one issue that is affecting 11 million aspiring Americans. These people are showing the strength and determination of the human spirit in immensely humbling ways. Even over Thanksgiving have there been people in the tent fasting while others feast, some sharing their reflections with us including Rhett Engelking from the Franciscan Action Network ("Fasting on Thanksgiving for Immigration Reform") and Lisa Sharon Harper from Sojourners ("Fast for Families: Day 18").

Let's pray and fast in solidarity that the House does not delay this vote on immigration reform any longer. Consider joining Franciscans worldwide in a water-only fast on December 3rd.  And then, let's work for climate justice to prevent the root causes of so much worldwide devastation so that people can live peacefully and productively in harmony with creation. Together we must stand in solidarity and take action for our brothers and sisters who suffer unnecessarily from unjust policies at the hand of our government.  The human spirit is strong, but think about how much more beautiful it is when we work together as one unified body.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Confessions of a Food Justice Advocate

I know it’s been a long time since I’ve written regularly on here. But I want to get back into it. Like the phoenix is reborn to new life, I am hoping the lessons I’ve learned and insight I’ve gained over the past few years will allow me to add life to this blog. 

We often hear that the perfect is the enemy of the good.  A trap I fell into, wanting to make this blog more than it needed to be and therefore not finding the time to write on it at all.  I didn’t have a strong enough conviction that none of us is perfect and we must share what we can, in humility, in order to grow.

We will be most alive, successful and happy when we are most ourselves. But we can’t fully become our true selves until we face our own insecurities.

I’ve been challenged a lot recently and have felt compelled to take a “SNAP (food stamp) challenge” – or in other words learn what it’s like for low-income people to try to eat healthy on a very restricted budget.  It’s something I’ve known for a while I should do.  How can I best communicate to low-income folks about eating healthy if I haven’t lived through and experienced doing it myself? 

I was very fortunate growing up to have had a mother who cooked great family meals every night.  It wasn’t processed, packaged foods – she made real, wholesome meals, practically every night of the week. I didn’t comprehend how important this skill of cooking and knowing how to prepare food really was, and took advantage of it, not learning the skills myself so that I would be able to use them later on in life.  This was all before I decided to study nutrition in college, of course. I had no idea my career was going to take me down a path that would bring me back to the importance of food and knowing how to prepare it. I never really understood how lucky I was to have those family meals until I was out own my own. In college, I was fortunate to have had great dining halls, but it left me with a nagging feeling that post-college I would not have the skills to prepare meals myself on a regular basis. I could go shopping and follow a recipe, but is not something I was committed to doing on a regular basis because I was so committed to so many other extra-curriculars.  I continued on this path in grad school and afterwards, working for an organization that has taught me about health disparities which fostered in me a real passion for food justice.  I’ve focused so much of my time over the past several years on seeking food justice because it bothers me that so many people don’t have the ability to afford healthy foods and don’t have access to things like fresh fruits and vegetables and the like.   But in retrospect some of this passion may have really just been a way of hiding from the challenge of figuring out how to eat healthy on a budget so I could share this wisdom with others. 

I didn’t see a point in figuring out great meal plans for myself if the population I was working with wouldn’t be able to relate to it. So I didn’t do it.  I live in a house where we care about building community and have weekly dinner nights where we share a meal with our housemates and neighbors/friends. So once a week I have my meals taken care of (once a month usually I commit to preparing the meal).  Many of the other nights of the week I have typically been out at meetings/events (where sometimes a meal is provided) or I’ve worked too late at night to come home and want to cook  (especially in a kitchen that’s over-crowded with food and dirty dishes your other housemates have left lying around).  I’ve also not been very structured about using the time I do have (usually on weekends) to plan out my meals for the week.  I’ve tended to stick with very simple dinners for myself that probably wouldn’t satisfy anyone but me.  A very basic kale salad for dinner?  Ok.  Or an egg or two with salt and pepper - maybe with some bread lying around.  A roasted acorn squash with maple syrup.  A potato or sweet potato.  In the summer, sautéed eggplant and squash from the farmer’s market.  Only when making meals that involve other people have I been more diligent about trying to prepare a balanced meal with carbs, protein and vegetables.   And for lunch, I must confess a typical day consists of a trip out of the office to Pret a Manger for a basic (usually vegetarian) sandwich, which wastes so much more packaging than if I had packed my lunch myself.

Another challenge for me is when shopping at a grocery store, trying to find foods that were packaged in as little an amount of plastic & material as possible, because unnecessarily filling up landfills, clogging oceans and killing animals with our trash just doesn’t sit right with me. Which has led me to often shop at a farmer’s market (where I can use a reusable bag for the vegetables) or participate in a community supported agriculture / farm share program to get fresh, local vegetables, straight from the farm, without all the middle-men steps and relying on the broken industrialized food system.

But there are still many lessons we can learn from each other in trying to eat healthy for ourselves and our families. And I’m committed to seeing how we can all learn from each other – I think it will lead to a more fulfilling life if we can provide wholesome, nutritious homecooked meals for ourselves and our families more often.  Last week I made a Lentil & Mushroom Shepherd’s Pie which tasted delicious and I’ve been able to get several servings of leftovers out of it too. (Other recipes I’ve made in the past you can view on my Pinterest Recipe page).

Some geniuses recently came out with the “Plant Based on a Budget” website with recipes and meal plans for eating tasty, wholesome meals without spending too much money.  Also, a few members of the Hunger & Environmental Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group have committed to taking the SNAP challenge and some of their experiences are being posted to the HEN Facebook page.  HEN member Karen Ehrens, who inspired others to begin this project a few months ago when she took the SNAP challenge, collected her experience in an article you can read here. In addition, Registered Dietitian & Secular Franciscan Stacey Antine was recently challenged by the Bergen Record (the major daily paper in Bergen County, NJ) to shop healthy on a SNAP budget of $146 for a family of 4 – and was able to do it, documenting here experiences here.
While I haven’t yet figured out a meal plan for myself to eat healthy on a SNAP budget, I would like to make a goal of learning to do this better over the next several months – and trying to keep this up as best I can afterwards too. If anyone would like to join me, below are the guidelines offered by HEN member Garnel Bruell:

SNAP Challenge Guidelines
How much money will you be limited to? Please see the attached chart that shows the maximum benefits / family members. And note that since November 1st, this amount has been reduced to the pre-2009 Recovery Act levels.
What else can you cook with? Although this is a call all your own, I would say don’t feel the need to buy additional cooking oils or spices. You could deliberately limit your spice use to things like salt/pepper and homegrown spices, but ultimately this is your decision. 

Especially in this time of Thanksgiving when so many people will be reminded of their constant struggle to put food on the table for their families, may we be grateful for the food that we do have and strive to eat simple, wholesome meals so that others may do the same. 

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Creation Care and Public Health - Same thing, different terms?

Over 200 scientists identifying as evangelical Christians signed a letter that was released today calling on Congress to pass meaningful legislation to address climate change. This is remarkable evidence that science and religion should be seen as complementary. As Dr. John Roe and others have pointed out, "many see science itself as an integral part of God's plan for the world." The evangelical climate change letter is part of Sojourners' creation care campaign, which calls on our moral obligation to care for God's creation.

I've been thinking more and more about the term "creation care" since I attended the National Mobilizing Circle training at Sojourners last summer where we had invigorating discussions about climate change and environmental justice. More recently, I've started thinking about creation care from a Franciscan perspective. Through the eyes of St. Francis of Assisi, the divine is found in all of creation, and we all exist in interdependence with the rest of creation.  Using this rationale, human beings not above or below the other parts of creation - the land, the oceans, the plants, and the animals.  And as Lisa Sharon Harper has pointed out, the Hebrew words of Genesis 1 tell us that it is the ties between things that are "forcefully good." If we live in right relationship with the rest of creation, there is justice and peace in the world.  But when we don't live in right relationship with the world, injustices abound, and the health of people and the earth suffers.

If you're not yet completely sold on the idea of our absolute interdependence with the rest of creation, perhaps some discussion would help.  Through the leadership of 200 evangelical scientists, we've established the scientific underpinnings of climate change are real and this constitutes a moral imperative to care for creation.  And the industrial food system is intricately connected with climate change, as I've demonstrated here.  The industrial food system is also connected to such injustices as hunger and health issues, with a billion hungry and a billion overweight people in the world.  Most of these people suffer because they can't afford healthy food to nourish their bodies.  This results from economic injustices such as a failure to pay workers living wages which would allow them to afford the food they need to live a healthy lifestyle. Plus, many of the world's hungry are actually the farmers who grow our food; because of corrupt governments and corporate agreements, land is pulled out from under people all the time through land grabs, thereby exacerbating food security issues. And when people can't afford food and don't have access to the land and water needed to grow food, turmoil and war often results, leading to more unnecessary casualties.  On the flipside, people who only have access to nutrient-poor, calorie-dense foods tend to develop diet-related diseases which wind up costing us billions of dollars in healthcare - unnecessary costs which drain our wallets and exhaust our economy.

So when it comes down to it, when we don't care for the earth and each other and nourish ourselves with the exquisite bounty that our Creator has provided for us, we destroy our health and the earth's health, and it leads to a mess of social injustices which exacerbate the health issues.  But when we learn to see ourselves as part of creation that needs to be cared for and create the conditions and supportive environments in which people can lead healthy lives, we can impact the social determinants of health and improve the health of all of creation.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Franciscan Earth Corps Fundraiser July 30

Franciscan Care for Creation:
Action Love for Our Sister, Mother Earth

Br. Keith Warner OFM
Co-Author of Care for Creation: A Franciscan Spirituality of the Earth
with response from Ibrahim Abdul-Matin
Author of Green Deen: What Islam Teaches About Protecting the Planet

Tuesday, July 30
San Damiano Hall at St. Francis of Assisi Friary
127 W. 31st Street
New York, NY 10001

Hors d’oeuvres from NYC urban gardens and Long Island Wine will be served.

Suggested Donation: $35
All proceeds benefit the Franciscan Earth Corps, a national network of young adults taking action on behalf of creation.  

For registration, please email: events (at)
For more information, please contact:
Rhett Engelking, OFS: engelking (at), 202-527-7563

This event is being offered by Franciscan Action Network (FAN), a collective Franciscan voice transforming public policy in light of the Gospel of Jesus.

If you would like to support the Earth Corps financially but cannot make it to the event, you may donate online here:

Want a PDF version of the flyer?  Download it here: 

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Act Now to Protect Nutrition in the Farm Bill!

The Senate is scheduled to have a debate on the Farm Bill on Monday, May 20th. Below is a message adopted from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics' Action Center; please send to your Senators now to help protect nutrition programs for all Americans!  If you don't know who your Congressional representatives are or their contact information, you can find it here
Please protect nutrition programs (Title IV) and nutrition research (Title VII) in the Farm Bill. Your support of a Farm Bill, focused on strong nutrition programs and research, that supports healthy people as well as the health of the earth, will improve the health of Americans and stimulate local economies. 
As a constituent, I urge you to:
Protect funding for –
•             The SNAP-Nutrition Education (SNAP-Ed) Program. In order to make healthy food choices on a limited budget, people need to be empowered with knowledge. SNAP-Ed educates families and has proven to lead to healthier eating habits. SNAP-Ed is a necessary benefit of the larger Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) package. SNAP-Ed is also in every state, including yours!
•             The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). SNAP provides eligible, low-income families monthly benefits to purchase much needed food.  SNAP also stimulates the economy by increasing participants’ purchasing power.  For every $5 in new SNAP benefits, as much as $9.20 is generated in local economic activity.
•             The Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP) supplies low-income families, many of which are seniors, USDA commodity foods. The CSFP food package provides good sources of the nutrients typically lacking in the diet of this population.
•             The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) provides nutritious foods that supplement the diets of low-income needy persons. This program utilizes organizations like food banks to reach this population. 
•             A strong Research and Extension title. Evidenced-based food and agriculture research will ensure a safe and healthy food supply for years to come.  Investing in food, nutrition and agriculture research is vital to guide sound decisions. Much of this research is conducted at each state’s land grant university.
Protect the program integrity of -
•             The Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program (FFVP) provides school children access to fresh fruits and vegetables. This program has been shown, in a robust 2013 evaluation, to increase children’s fruit and vegetable consumption by 15%, without increasing their overall calorie intake. This means children are eating fresh fruits and vegetables instead of other, potentially less healthy foods. FFVP also helps creates the foundation for healthy life-long habits.
•             The Seniors Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program benefits seniors and local farmers. This well established and well received program provides seniors access to seasonal produce while supporting local farmers and economies.
These important programs: 1.Contribute to healthy life-long habits; 2. Allow recipients to maintain their health and well-being during temporary times of economic hardship; and 3. May decrease the risk of developing costly and debilitating chronic diseases which strain our healthcare system.
Please protect these extremely valuable programs as the Farm Bill is debated on the Senate floor.