Faith formation and food

Here is a portion of an article I wrote for the LifeLong Faith Journal. It was inspired by a visit that Gus and Susan Schumacher made to our Sunday Night Coffehouse.

As we gather to worship on Sunday morning at Western Church, we have a sense that God empowers us to work for a just and compassionate society, and we try to imagine small ways in which we can help. Much of what Western has done has been in the area of food. It makes sense. After all, the good feast is central to our service, and we gather to receive the Eucharist in the sanctuary, we often remind ourselves that the Communion table is connected to the tables in our church basement, where homeless men and women receive a hot, nutritious breakfast.

Our worship often leads us to think about big issues in our congregation, for example:

•Soaring oil prices mean escalating food costs. A strain on our resources has contributed to rising costs of petroleum and petroleum-based fertilizers. The gas hike has exacerbated the escalating cost of food nationally and the food crisis globally.

•Transporting food contributes to environmental damage. With the environmental harm that carbon emissions cause and the growing scarcity of resources due to the economic development of China and India, we realize that we will need to think differently about how we grow and transport food. We will need to develop markets for diverse, local food.

•People in poverty often do not have access to healthier food. People who are in difficult financial situations (for example, the elderly, the homeless, those on food stamps and WIC) often buy calorie dense food, because it is cheaper and it satisfies hunger quickly. Food pantries are filled with unhealthy alternatives; in contrast, fruit and organic meat is expensive to purchase.

•Eating poorly affects our health, as a nation. The low cost and availability of calorie dense food presents an incentive to eat more junk food, and it causes more health problems in our country in the long run, such as diabetes, obesity, and heart disease. The risk of diabetes is a particular danger for children.

These are major issues of our time, giant forces that affect our global environment, national landscape, and personal health. Yet these global issues often have local solutions, and innovative communities of faith are in a perfect position to take on some of these sizeable problems, in very small ways.

At Western, the table is central to our worship and our work, so feeding people is at the core of our spiritual practice, and we have been open to innovation as we do it. There are many things that we have done to educate and form our congregation around the importance of food, and they involve two initiatives: we organized a farmers market in our neighborhood and started a feeding program for the homeless.

•We helped to revive the farmers’ market in our neighborhood. Churches and other faith communities are often in the perfect situation to begin farmers’ markets because we often have the available parking lots and space. The Fresh Farm Market in Foggy Bottom relies on our parking garage to store tents and signs.

How could something as simple as a farmer’s market affect big issues like the environment, the food shortage, and our health?

Farmer’s markets will be crucial in the years to come, as they allow for a space where local agriculture can be bought and sold. When we nurture our relationships with local food sources, we help to give farmers a market and an impetus to diversify their crops, and we decrease our dependence on petroleum.

Furthermore, many farmers’ markets can become participants with government programs so that recipients of food stamps and WIC can receive checks to use to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables. In addition, seniors who need assistance also have incentives to shop at the markets.

In these tough economic times, fruits and vegetables are often the first thing that a financially-strapped family has to cross off of their grocery list, but farmer’s markets create a place where they can receive fresh produce, that has been picked that morning, creating a possibility and even incentives for buying healthy food.

All of this brings us to another innovative thing that Western did, twenty-five years ago: we helped to create Miriam’s Kitchen.

•We started a feeding program for the homeless men and women in our city. Miriam’s Kitchen is housed in the basement of our church, and our services have grown so that we now feed over 200 clients each weekday morning. We not only serve them breakfast, but the staff at Miriam’s is committed to assisting their guests with a wide array of social services.

It is not like any other feeding program in which I have been involved, because the chef at Miriam’s, Steve Badt, is committed to providing the most nutritious meals that we can. Each morning, the menu includes vegetables that are not often seen on the average American’s breakfast table, but they are essential to a healthy diet. Steve knows that a meal at Miriam’s may be the only one a client might receive that day, so he makes sure that it has the nutritional value that will get that guest through the next twenty-four hours.

Just as the cost of food increases on our grocery shelves, the food line item in Miriam’s budget also rises. In the last couple of years, the food costs at Miriam’s have increased by 50 percent. That is where the two initiatives, the farmers’ market and the breakfast program, work together.

Not only do farmers’ markets help women, infants, children, and the elderly have access to fresh fruits and vegetables, but many farmers are committed to helping the homeless as well. One farmer told me, “It only makes sense to give the left-over produce to people who need it. If I sell at a market that isn’t contributing to a soup kitchen or a food bank, then I make sure I find an agency that we can contribute to.”

At Western, we have seen the generosity of farmers first-hand. Each Wednesday evening, when the farmers are packing up, members of our congregation go gleaning. Participating in a spiritual tradition as old as the days of Ruth and Boaz, they fill their baskets with leftover items that the farmers will not be able to sell at the next market. The members then take those items to Miriam’s Kitchen. Through the generosity of the farmers, our members collected about $15,000 worth of produce last year.

Gleaning after markets is not the only way that this works. Families of all ages also drive out to farms in Virginia and glean the orchards and fields, so they can carry the produce back to Miriam’s.

It’s clear in our spiritual community that most people do not attend Western in order to worship for one hour. We are reminded that our service extends beyond our walls. We are called by God to look at big issues and to find innovate, local ways to address them.

Photo by Monitorpop

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