Faith and Fork Aligned: The Faithful Work to Feed Both Body and Soul

Whether it's hunger, injustice, or obesity, Americans of all faiths are becoming food activists.

A student in the Food, Faith, and Spirituality class at the Wake Forest University School of Divinity harvests fresh carrots at Anathoth Community Garden in Cedar Grove, NC. (Photo by Baylee Smith)
Steve Holt writes about food for 'Edible Boston,' 'Boston Magazine,' 'The Boston Globe,' and other publications.

It’s no secret at this point that a movement to change to more healthy, just, and local ways of eating is well under way in the United States. Participant Media’s Food, Inc. and Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma have been primary sources for Americans seeking alternatives to the Big Ag status quo.

And increasingly, people of faith are joining—and even leading—the eclectic movement to restore a more sustainable food system.

“Jesus used a lot of stories about gardening in his parables, and that speaks a lot to the importance of agriculture,” said Kelly Moltzen, who works as a nutrition coordinator at Bronx Health REACH in New York City but also spearheads the food justice work for New York Faith and Justice. “[Jesus] talked a lot about caring for people and making sure that people all have access to just systems, and I think having access to food that promotes health is one of those principles. He might not have said it directly, but it’s implied.”

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Churches, faith-based nonprofits, synagogues, mosques, and individuals working in secular organizations are still feeding the hungry as they’ve done for millennia, but they’re also working to address root causes of symptoms such as food insecurity, health problems, and environmental desolation. Earlier this month, Wake Forest University School of Divinity announced its new “Food, Faith and Religious Leadership Initiative,” which will train religious leaders in the region how to lead congregations around issues of food justice.

“Over the past seven years, I’ve witnessed the rise of a new faith-based movement,” director Fred Bahnson said in a release on the Wake Forest website, “and I believe this renewed interest in food, justice, and sustainability is driven by an even deeper hunger to see embodied what the biblical writers call shalom, that graced state of being that results from a right relationship between God, people, and the land.”

Six hundred miles away from Winston-Salem, in Bronx, New York, Moltzen of New York Faith and Justice expresses a similar theological basis for caring about where our food comes from. “We could be supporting a food system that destroys the earth and leads to more hunger,” she says, “or we could be supporting a food system that helps to heal the earth and feed more people.”

Toward the latter vision, New York Faith and Justice launched several working groups after receiving a grant from Bronx Health REACH to tackle food justice as a citywide issue. Last fall, the Farm Bill Working Group partnered with a citywide working group on a successful conference called “Faith, Food Justice and the Farm Bill.” Moltzen says the Business Outreach Working Group is working to increase access to healthy and affordable food in low-income areas of the city by supporting an adopt-a-bodega program.

Christian groups aren’t the only ones to take up food as a spiritual issue. In Los Angeles, IKAR, a Jewish spiritual congregation, and the Progressive Jewish Alliance, a Jewish social justice organization, partner to provide residents of food deserts with transportation to the nearest supermarkets for fresh and healthy foods.

And in Washington, D.C., a faith-based series of classes—“Food for the Soul: Faith-Based Nutrition Series”—aimed at connecting people’s spiritual and nutritional wellness, is making the rounds between religious groups. After a summer-long series in which parishioners at St. Teresa of Avila Roman Catholic Church deepened their connection between faith and fork, D.C. Food and Justice reports that starting this fall, the series is being taught to Muslims at the Masjid Muhammad mosque.

The first event sponsored by Wake Forest’s new food initiative will be a seminar on “The Spirituality of Eating,” Oct. 12-13 in Asheville, N.C. For those faith leaders who haven’t read Pollan or watched Food, Inc., the initiative aims to lay the groundwork for future activism.

“We need to be educating religious leaders who understand that caring for creation is an essential pastoral practice in working for the kingdom of God,” says Gail R. O’Day, Dean of the School of Divinity.

How are churches, faith-based groups, and individual people of faith joining the food movement where you live?

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