Talking about how we buy our food is often a sensitive matter, but it is also one of the most important mundane actions we take, especially in the United States of America. I want to encourage readers how to love themselves, their community, and love God with the things we all buy and eat.
Loving God and loving people is the essence of right living. If you believe in God or follow the teachings of Jesus, you may remember he summed all the law and the prophets to these two commands. He even described what this love should resemble in our lives, through parables, hyperbolism, and strangely enough, with miracles- involving food. Multiplying bread and fish for a hungry crowd, filling the nets of fishermen, and turning water into wine all seem to be a prelude to He himself becoming the bread and wine, and the fishermen becoming fishers of men. He is the Passover lamb. The bread of life.
Which may explain why he also comforts his audience, “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes?” Remember that his audience at the time was living in near third world conditions, with extreme food insecurity, and at a time when clothing was more culturally significant and in limited supply! So, this admonition to not worry was almost like saying to a group of refugees, “Don’t worry about where you will live! Your Father in heaven takes care of the birds, he will take care of you!” It’s hard to believe, but if you can believe it, how empowering! The God of the universe, our father!? So we trust Him to take care of our food, clothes, our lives when we barely have them!? And then we just don’t worry about it!?
The times today are certainly different and the ‘needs’ of society are very different in the ‘first world.’ Jesus’ audience didn’t need cars to make it to work, or need EBT cards to feed their kids, and they didn’t have to worry about sorting through the clothing racks at Salvation Army. They most certainly didn’t have to worry about whether to buy 100% Fresh Squeezed Orange Juice or Organic Orange Juice from concentrate. Life has become more complicated, and the modern conveniences we enjoy today would be unimaginable during Jesus’ time, well really at any other time in history.
Before the industrial revolution, having the kind of variety and vast selection of food we see in most grocery stores was only attainable by the very rich and very well connected. Yet even then, there were limits to what could be grown seasonally and what could be shipped without rotting. Food was mostly local and very connected to the seasons, the culture, and the earth. Refrigeration was shoddy. Crops could fail. There were no pesticides. There were no planes to crop dust. People had reason to worry about food being in short supply. Today, thousands of pounds of healthful food is wasted each day. America prides itself in producing more food than its citizens could attempt to eat (though many of it’s own citizens, children, go to sleep hungry). So, what does the encouragement from Christ to not worry about food mean in this society?
I was by no means raised in a wealthy American home, maybe lower middle class, so Jesus’ word seemed to me more applicable to those who were vain about their food and clothing, eating at lots of five-star restaurants and buying Rolex watches. It was like Jesus’ sermon on the mount was saying, “Don’t worry that you can’t afford the finest things in life!” While that may be a good admonition, it was not the original context of his teaching! He was telling people who probably only had a few articles of clothing and went to bed hungry the night before to not worry about food or clothes! He was NOT saying, “Don’t worry about whether to have a burger or salad, a cola or tea, or organic vegetables or genetically altered ones, I provide it all!” Jesus was consoling the poor that their Father in heaven would take care of them, and that even when they are hungry they can look to Him for literal provision. Remember how he miraculously fed the crowds?
Most living in the United States do not need miraculous provision of food.
Food is produced in such mass quantities in this country that an estimated 40% of its food supply is wasted. That reminds me of when God sent the quail to His grumbling people in the wilderness, and before they could eat it all they became sick from it. There is so much food in the US that it really is an extreme injustice and shame that people still go hungry and are nutrient deficient because it isn’t available or is hidden- often to protect the consumer demand for food companies’ profits.
Let’s pause. Why am I writing such a long blog about food?
I remember traveling to the Philippine Islands and India and enjoying food rich in flavor even in its simplicity, and I vividly remember my friends surviving happily on smaller portions while delighting in more healthful grains, vegetables, and proteins. I would watched the chicken, we later ate, run around the village before its swift demise. Later, when I returned to the U.S., like many others who return from the developing world, I found that the culmination of my culture shock was… grocery shopping. I was in complete and utter shock at the extensive aisles and shelves of food. Countless varieties of surgery cereals, cakes, breads, beans, flours, fish, beef, chicken so large it actually could never have and probably had not walked even if it was fortunate enough to have the space to try…I could go on. Anyway. At first it made me angry. Then despondent. Then apathetic. Then after grieving the blatant and seemingly unnoticed disparity in food wealth, I came to a frightful realization, well three life changing revelations really:
- We are utterly ungrateful for the wealth of food in the U.S.
- We CAN discard our apathy and enjoy our food better – by becoming grateful again
- Our lives NEED God’s love and grace to grow in self-control.
First let’s talk about thankfulness.
Unlike ancient Palestine, today we have food of the world, inexpensively, and conveniently at our finger tips. While the very rich can buy more expensive food in larger quantities, we all spend similarly for food. In the U.S. “… the rich, the poor and the middle class all spend about 19 percent [of] their grocery budget on fruits and vegetables, about 22 percent on meats, and about 13 percent on breads and cereals.” And all of us on average spend less than 10% of our general income on food. Compared to less fortunate nations this is an extreme dichotomy.
In the developing world the average citizen spends up to 40% of their disposable income on food alone, and among the poor that number rises. That means the poor of the world would have to spend half their income to survive, four times what we in the West spend from our income.
And the U.S. leads the world in food consumption. The average American eats close to twice the amount of food that his friends in the developing world eat. No wonder many Americans ignorantly joke about dying when we haven’t had coffee all day, “first world problems.” That joke. Although that joke places our lives in a more global perspective, it has more of a sardonic effect: shame.
Shame for when we fail to enjoy our food fully or continue to buy deleterious food that contributes to our own excesses. Shame for when we purchase food that indirectly affects and sometimes is a root cause of real ‘third world problems’ that we arrogantly chide ourselves about lacking. “First world problems.” This shame is not a solution. It hides and discourages positive action to change anything. In fact, this shame is often the root of the eating disorders seen primarily in first world countries. It’s the root of our apathy. If we want to be truly grateful for food and drop our pathetic ‘first world problems,’ we can start by shaming ourselves no more! Be realistic about our situation! It is okay to truly enjoy the food selection we have and delight in our abundance! We are loved and well provided for! Let’s ask ourselves, how can we appreciate our food more? How can we love well with our food?
Love what is good then share it.
At the homeless shelter and food pantry I minister at in Kansas City, we see excessive amounts of baked sweets, meat and dairy products donated, vegetables and fruits seem to be in limited supply. Although the food we donate there is not always the most healthful, we see so many grateful eyes glimmer when they know they have food to eat for free! Yet, often the ones who need nutrition the most seem to be given leftover junk food. It’s also interesting to watch how much excess meat, dairy, and sugar we have, when nutrient dense vegetables seem to be in such short supply. Something that I am grateful for is that in the US we have access to countless nutritious vegetables and fruits from around the world, yet they don’t seem to make it to our plates before more convenient, microwavable options are used, and so our demand for unhealthful food becomes the available food for the poor. While healthy diets are available and realistically affordable to the bulk of the American-middle and lower-middle class, we often go for instant gratification instead.
Are we being grateful for what we have, or do we despise how much there is? Are we grateful for the nutrition we have? Do we invest our funds in buying food that we are really grateful for, or do we invest our money in foods that we feel give us the most pleasure?
Not worrying about what we will eat and wear is not about letting ourselves go and eat and wear whatever pleases us. Neither is it about being anxious about the perfect diet. Jesus commands us to look to God to provide our food and our good gifts. Then by enjoying what He has given us and sharing what He has given us, we begin to really be grateful for the good food He provides. Loving well with food starts with giving genuine thanks for it.