How a church community is taking action on food justice and climate change

Asking any sustainability aficionado, soon one realizes that healing our industrialized agricultural system is one of the chief ways to halt our current ecological breakdown. Asking most church-goers, one then finds a puzzling disconnect between ways of engaging with food and ways of living out the vision of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. As farmer and Christian writer Wendell Berry made it clear in ‘The Pleasures of Eating’, most of us eat in great ignorance today. Faith and food have become, literally, like water and oil.

According to the World Resources Institute, our food systems are likely the one human activity with the greatest impact on both the global climate, as well as soils, forests, oceans, and watersheds. Every food we choose, and every bite we take, has unseen reverberations that cannot be immediately tasted—whether on the health of our bodies, the wellbeing of farm workers, or the greater integrity of the living community of creation.

Thankfully, however, eating responsibly is a reality that is beginning to be honoured in the theology and practices of some churches acting on climate change—an encouraging scenario, considering the Bible’s almost obsessive emphasis on respect for the land, on rightful living, and on shared meals.

‘Green’ Consumerism? And Mostly for the Better-Off?

Common responses to address the looming challenges of the food system have frequently focused on voting with one’s dollar through so-called ‘buying green’—be it purchasing organic, subscribing to a weekly CSA box, or visiting farmers markets. Moreover, it’s sometimes said that eating responsibly mirrors driving, calling those who want to conserve gasoline to raise their right foot.

For all their worth, these initiatives often remain a privilege reserved mostly for those who can afford them, given that virtuously grown food does often fall outside of many people’s budget. And then, too, ‘buying green’ is a punctual, me-centered response that easily leaves untouched the wider systems at play. Such a response can make us believe that our greatest power is that of being responsible ‘consumers’—when, in fact, that individualistic loneliness of neoliberalism is one of the acidic substances eroding away our societies and the ecological cradles that sustain them.

Still, the challenge remains: In what ways would the metaphor of raising-one’s-right-foot apply to how we eat? How could we feed ourselves in manners that safeguard the atmosphere and agricultural soils for generations to come, treating them as sacred gifts and not as inherent rights?

“…for All the Earth is Mine”

Seeking after a more collective response, members from the Grandview Church community in unceded Coast Salish Territory, Vancouver are engaging with such questions. Acknowledging themselves as guests in a world that is not of their own making, these church folk have in fact started to eat their faith by experimenting with practical responses aiming to honour ancient scriptural mandates; be it to ‘serve’ and ‘preserve’ the living garden (Gen 2), or to ‘plant vineyards’ and ‘look after the wellbeing of the city’ (Jer 29), to name just two.

“Commitment to the land and to the world is a dominant theme in the biblical narrative,” affirms the current coordinator of the church’s food buying club (to be described below) “so we see connecting with local farms and food producers as a way to be responsible for our ecological footprint and to honour our calling as disciples.”

In addition to this 5-page eating guide, which has informed parts of Grandview’s faith-and-food journey, below you will find: i) a sketch of the church’s food-purchasing hub; ii) promising ways to spread the seeds further.

Churches as Hubs for Responsible Food Procurement

The food buying club began in late 2014 when a group of 5-6 from Grandview was grasped by the desire to create a-direct-a-relationship-as-possible with more responsible farms. Having outlined some of their (rather ambitious) guiding principles, they then went on to source for local food growers that would meet their ethical standards as best as possible.

In addition to already-existing subscriptions to CSA boxes from nearby smallholders, soon after those participating in the buying club initiative found themselves placing orders for organic flours, dried fruit, and all sorts of grains and legumes. Eventually, too, some ventured into purchasing dairy and eggs from organic craft farms that don’t sell to supermarkets.

In some cases, the buying club managed to connect directly with family farms; in others, foods were bought from a nearby mill, which itself agglomerated all sorts of goods from different organic farms. Regardless, purchasing as a group has allowed avoiding intermediation, thus reducing purchasing costs while also increasing the share of the profit that goes directly to farmers.

Why Food Hubs Work

The relationships of trust between its members has been part and parcel of what has enabled the food buying club to grow from the original 5-6 people to the more than 25-30 households it serves today.

The already-existing building and the relational fabric have also enabled the food club to operate without any considerable fixed costs. Because people already know and trust each other, they use a free, unsophisticated spreadsheet to place orders; they gather at a neighbour’s house to pick up their foods; they can co-order certain items whose minimum purchasing quantities are too high for just one person.

“I appreciate having the role of connecting folk with responsible food when they would otherwise not get it for themselves” affirms the food hub coordinator. “People are well-intentioned but don’t necessarily have the imagination or time to look out for virtuous farms. So I like seeing the joy people experience in receiving good food.”

“I also really enjoy connecting and supporting farmers who are very generous and grateful towards those who purchase from them. And, truth be told, I also like socializing and good eating.”

To be sure, an initiative like this is nowhere close to reinventing the wheel. But it at least shows how church communities can naturally serve as existing relational hubs that foster relational eating—an eating which is itself grounded in knowing (and loving) one’s farmers as one’s self.

And what is more, even if Grandview’s is a small example, it can be (and likely is) one among many. Take for a moment its 120-odd members engaged in the food hub, and then multiply them by the 370,000 estimated church communities existing in North America. That’s nowhere close to insignificant. Over 40 million people committed to eating their faith by supporting and advocating for the wellbeing and integrity of the food web could very well turn things around—feeding us better, building soils to capture carbon and retain water, reweaving the web of our impersonal urban ecologies.

Spreading the Seeds Further

The last few decades have been blessed by a surge of people who care intimately for their farms and their places. New modes of sovereign, ecologically-wise food production such as agroecology and permaculture have been taking root, even as more local supply chains and new bonds of direct trade have been developing between food growers and food eaters. Farmer’s markets, food buying clubs such as Grandview’s, and direct fair-trade are all promising alternatives.

But then again, these ways of feeding ourselves are usually only within the reach of wealthier populations. As argued in A Climate of Desire: Reconsidering Sex, Christianity, and How We Respond to Climate Change, what we now require is a deeper shift in our cultural climate. We need a transition away from the seductive lure of consumerism towards firm and steady citizen support for system-wide initiatives debunking Babylonian supermarkets, on the one hand, while seeking to create ecologically-regenerative food systems with minimal food waste, on the other hand.  The goal is that a primarily plant-based diet becomes accessible to all, using the least possible amount of fossil fuels.

Here, then, it’s worth supporting the North American chapters of the Vía Campesina; namely Food Secure Canada and the National Farmers Union (both in Canada), and the Rural Coalition and the National Family Farm Coalition (in the USA). These organizations are advancing collective transitions that can (and should) be supported by members of faith communities and by us all—be it as fans, volunteers, donors, advocates, workers, or funders. (To be sure, a series of sermons on food justice every year wouldn’t hurt either.)
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All this to suggest that, should communities of faith get outside of themselves by working out the cosmic, earthkeeping vision of the Judeo-Christian scriptures, they could very well find themselves participating in the divine renewal of creation—a renewal once foreseen in the 55th chapter of the Book of Isaiah, whereby “the trees will clap their hands” and the “mountains sing for joy”:

Come, buy wine and milk without price.
Why do you spend your money on what is not bread,
And your labour on what does not satisfy? (v. 2)

As we approach what may very well be a bleak future, perhaps more than ever the time is ripe for setting the tables for such a promised banquet. And perhaps, too, the day is near when the vision behind these words will be eaten entirely anew—hoping, praying, and working towards the long-awaited ecosystem of heaven to continue to come down to earth, turning water into wine, and mourning into joy.