Eating Food and Justice
For two years I served as the senior pastor of First United Methodist Church of Compton, CA. The commute from my apartment in Claremont, a beautifully landscaped college town 30 miles east of LA, to Compton, a low-income predominantly African-American and Latino community, provided the stereotypical contrasts between a suburban and an inner-city environment. The most profound contrast was not always visible or discussed – the food options available to local residents.
Claremont has one large and two medium-sized supermarkets for a population of 35,500. Compton, with nearly 98,000 people, has only two markets, both located on the far edges of the city. Compton instead is saturated with fast-food chains. McDonald’s, Domino’s, Subway, and three other fast-food restaurants are all located within a block or so of my church, which is located next to an elementary school.
In their book Food Justice, Robert Gottlieb and Anupama Joshi define food justice as “ensuring that the benefits and risks of where, what, and how food is grown and produced, transported and distributed, accessed and eaten are shared fairly.”1 For my community in Compton, and other predominantly black and brown communities in the U.S., I believe food justice is a life-or-death social justice issue. We suffer from higher rates of food insecurity, obesity, and diet related preventable diseases than Euro-Americans.
To be sure, environmental racism plays a decisive role in creating the food gap that exists in poor, predominantly black and brown communities. Environmental racism has far-reaching consequences: It is felt not only by the placement of incinerators and landfills within communities of color but also encourages the displacement of vital goods and services within those communities.
Thus supermarkets in low-income areas have been replaced with fast-food restaurants. Families who rely on public transportation are left without equal access to what many Americans consider a basic human right – healthy food.
Questions confronts us as religious leaders. What role should we play? How should our communities participate in this justice movement? How might we eat both food and justice? For those of us who are committed to a liberationist interpretation of the Gospel – a vocational calling to dismantle systems of oppression – we believe our communities should be centrally involved in any food justice movement.
I have spent the past four years researching and discerning, both in the classroom and in church life, how Christian communities can incorporate food justice into their ethical practice. How can we subvert the embedded racism in our food system? There are no easy answers to complex problems, but progress will be made only if religious communities develop something unfamiliar to many of them: a theology of eating.
Thinking theologically about our food and where it comes from is the first step in addressing structural inequalities of our food system. Whenever and wherever we eat, we should take the time to ask ourselves if the food on our plates enables or inhibits the collective flourishing of Creation. To confront food system injustice, Christians seeking a theology of eating should embody three virtues: embracing our soul, justice for food workers, and care of the earth.
The second and third virtues – justice for food workers and care of the earth – can only be embodied if religious communities initially seek the first virtue of embracing our soul. The word “soul” has deep resonance within Christianity and especially within the African-American religious tradition. Embracing our soul requires us to reflect upon our past and build upon ancestral wisdom in order to forge a new future.
Facing the Past
The way religious communities embody this virtue will necessarily vary. In any case, it takes courage and self-scrutiny. For Euro-American Christians, reflecting on the past requires identifying the historical injustices that still languish within the American food system. Surveying the history of food production in the U.S., they’ll learn that African Americans specifically, and black and brown folk in general, have been denied access to land, agricultural technology, government subsidies and insurance, and labor protection in the form of agricultural unions.
I have found that when dealing with issues of race, people of privilege often make the mistake of envisioning “who we want to be” without sufficiently examining “who we currently are and how we got here.” I believe Euro-American Christians will make long-term changes to their food politics and help subvert structural racism when they accept that their privilege perpetuates an inhumane and unjust system.
Confronting the past makes plain that the future of food must be radically different. As a person of privilege one has the power and arguably the obligation to influence real change in our food system.
For African-American Christians, embracing our soul requires that we challenge habits of black food culture that are destructive to our goal of liberation. The collective spiritual wisdom of the black church tradition compels us to take a theology of liberation seriously in all areas of our life – in this case, how we eat. We have to allow our notion of black soul – and soul food – to evolve. A more diverse understanding of soul food, one that embraces vegetarian, vegan, organic, and healthier ways of eating, benefits our community, helping us move beyond fixed social and cultural identities. In this way soul food becomes a tool of liberation in our fight against oppressive food systems.
Dynamics of Soul
Indeed, for the sake of our own survival, black culture has never had a static definition of soul, and we need not hang on to static notions of soul food today. By embracing the legacy of African-American soul, the black church leaves room for our definition of soul food to deepen. Soul food, in its truest sense, is food prepared by African Americans who utilize their collective wisdom.
Developing a theology of eating that incorporates these three virtues, people of faith will spark a food justice movement within the church. When we think theologically about our food, I believe we make better food choices that mirror our theological convictions.
If we really believe that God desires all creation to flourish and our Christian vocation is to dismantle the systems of oppression that limit flourishing, then perhaps we should all take a look at our plates to determine if we are indeed feasting on oppression.
Christopher Carter is a United Methodist pastor and a Ph.D. student at Claremont School of Theology, focusing on theological ethics, Africana studies, and eco-theology and ethics. His dissertation focuses on “Eating Oppression: Faith, Food, and Liberation.”
1 Robert Gottlieb and Anupama Joshi, Food Justice: Food, Health, and the Environment (MIT Press, 2010), p. 6.