Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Building a Catholic Food System

Mass is a celebration of the Eucharist – the body of Christ, the physical manifestation of the divine presence on Earth.  Millions of Catholics go to mass every weekend and celebrate the Eucharist, and Christians of other denominations similarly celebrate the meal Jesus had with his disciples through weekly services. But what could it mean to take the celebration Eucharist even more literally, to live out the spirituality to which our faith calls us?  
“Give us this day, our daily bread,” we pray.  How can we let Christ live through us in a way that better helps to ensure the world’s hungry receive their daily bread?  This question is one that necessitates seeing ourselves as interconnected with our brothers and sisters across the world, so we can maintain the spiritual stamina needed to create a more equitable food system.

Photo credit: Gerald Wen, member of Harmony Farm CSA & St. John the Baptist/Holy Cross Justice, Peace & Integrity of Creation (JPIC) Care for Creation committee. Used by permission.

In December 2016, I helped to facilitate a food justice breakout session within a Catholics of Color Climate Justice workshop, organized by the Franciscan Action Network in partnership with Climate Reality Project. One participant asked how we might build a food system based on Catholic principles.  I started brainstorming what this might entail.  
A food system based on Catholic principles would value the five components of the Good Food Purchasing Policy of the Center for Good Food Purchasing: local economies, environmental sustainability, valued workforce, animal welfare, and nutrition.  A Catholic food system would care for the hungriest among us, both on the other side of the world as well as the other side of the street, making sure everyone not only has access to food but gets fresh, quality, nutritious food, that doesn’t degrade environmental sustainability but promotes ecological well-being instead.
Picture this: going to church and picking up a farm share with food grown on an organic and biodynamic farm owned by a religious congregation, and having surplus food that is grown be donated to the church’s food pantry or soup kitchen, thanks to the support of other parishioners who can help to subsidize the additional food.  Having quotes from Pope Francis’ encyclical “Laudato Si” sent out in your weekly emails reminding you to pick up your vegetables from the farm. Coming together with parishioners to discuss integral ecology and spirituality – how our faith informs how we live out our engagement with the earth. And having the opportunity to visit the farm, meet the people who are growing your food, and even pick some of the produce yourself.
That is exactly what is happening through Blessed Sacrament Church on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in New York City. Blessed Sacrament has partnered with a lay Catholic community known as Benincasa (after St. Catherine Benincasa of Siena) that is supported by the Dominican Sisters of Blauvelt. Benincasa Community and the Social Action Committee at Blessed Sacrament host a “Community-Supported Agriculture” program and support the church soup kitchen in providing farm-fresh food to the community. Grown on Harmony Farm and offered alongside a discussion group and excerpts from Laudato Si in a weekly newsletter, the food provided by Harmony Farm is spiritual as well as physical nourishment.

Photo credit: Kelly Moltzen, taken at the Care for Creation retreat at Harmony Farm

2016 was the first year of the farm-to-church partnership. In 2017, Benincasa is starting to expand the program to other parishes.  The parish of Holy Cross/St. John the Baptist, run by the Capuchin Franciscans, has taken up the challenge, and parishioners have decided to donate funds for a bulk farm share that will be purchased for a new soup kitchen. The soup kitchen will be parishioner-led, too: several people have already taken the Food Protection Course and are now licensed to supervise the many volunteers who are ready to prepare food and service the soup line.
Biodynamic, organic farms such as Harmony Farm are practicing regenerative agriculture, which can trap carbon in the air into the ground, thereby helping to reduce carbon dioxide in our atmosphere. If regenerative agriculture was practiced globally, 100 percent of current, annual carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions would be sequestered (1). This is a refreshing alternative to food from a system that is a significant contributor to climate change and environmental degradation.
Because of our industrial growing practices and cultural habits, red meat and dairy contribute nearly half of the greenhouse gas emissions of all foods.  The beauty of eating a plant-based diet with foods grown locally, organically, and even biodynamically, is that we can build a new food system while simultaneously providing climate solutions.  Creating a system that feeds the hungry with nourishing food from the earth also puts the power and responsibility back into parishes and takes it away from the food industry, a harmful system that perpetuates food insecurity as Andrew Fisher recently made clear in his book Big Hunger: The Unholy Alliance Between Corporate America and Anti-Hunger Groups.
Ideally we can work towards the full meaning of the root of the word charity (caritas), or “expressing one’s love for God through love for one’s neighbor and oneself,” a love that includes dignity of the receiver, and also keep in mind the roots of charity in the Judaic tradition, where the highest level of charity is when receivers are able to become self-reliant.
To make more sustainably, ethically grown produce available at an affordable price for all, we would need a Farm Bill that is committed to biodiversity and incentivizes produce rather than subsidizes corn and soy as staple crops.  More affordable fruits and vegetables would also support equity for communities of color that are disproportionately affected by health disparities. We also need to make sure children are being taught from a young age about healthy and plant based eating, and provide them with opportunities to learn how food connects them to the earth and others.  There is a great model for this in WANDA, or Women Advancing Nutrition, Dietetics & Agriculture.  In ensuring that young girls are educated about the healing power of food, we can build a new generation of leaders who have the capacity to sustain themselves and one another.  
By focusing on growing more fruits and vegetables and promoting a plant-based diet, we can also reduce our reliance on the resource-intensive and often unethical practices involved in raising animals for meat.  The Saint Francis Alliance is a network of Catholics who advocate for vegetarianism because they recognize the inherent value and dignity of animals, and know that an ecosystem which treats animals well will also be one that is sustainable and healthy for humans.
Equipping ourselves to build a food system that honors the dignity of all of creation promotes improved food and water security for everyone, which can also help reduce violence and conflict especially in areas where resource scarcity is a threat to human livelihood.  Yet creating this new food system is not an easy feat: in order to accomplish the task, we must recognize the challenges that come with defending creation, ethical treatment of farmworkers, and the poor’s access to land. This became a lifelong struggle for Cesar Chavez, and Oscar Romero was assassinated standing up against corruption and in the name of Christ, and for the right of the poor to have access to land.
A food system based on Catholic principles is one based on the premise of integral ecology – recognizing our profound interdependence with the earth and one another.  It’s based on Catholic Social Teaching, including honoring the dignity of all, rights of workers, a for the poor and vulnerable, and the care of creation.  And it’s one that allows us to fully live out the three dimensions of eco-conversion: the spiritual dimension, lifestyle dimension, and advocacy dimension. It’s one based on grace, where the incarnate is not desecrated, but its sacredness is instead honored as we share meals through community.
(also posted at  

(1)  Rodale Institute (2014). Regenerative Organic Agriculture and Climate Change: A Down-to-Earth Solution to Global Warming. This compelling statistic is backed up by Rodale’s Farming Systems Trial (FST), the longest-running test comparing organic and conventional cropping systems.