Rousing Us From Inattention
Food is life. Food is death. Food is something we share. Food is something we hoard. Food belongs to all. Food belongs only to some. Food unites us. Food divides us. Food is a necessity. Food is a luxury. Food is a source of injustice. Food is the vehicle of justice. Food is a right.
In my previous work as a Hindu monk, I taught the art, ethics, and spirituality of vegetarian cooking to students at Columbia University and New York University.
Currently as a Hindu student at New York’s Union Theological Seminary, I endeavor to make compelling, compassionate, and clear connections between the realms of food justice and theology.
As a community organizer for the Corbin Hill Food Project in Harlem and the Bronx, I help bring naturally grown produce to communities where access to such food has been made too difficult, too costly, and too caught up in the prejudices that propel our misunderstandings around race and class.
Each of these hats I wear is distinctive, yet they all come from the same fabric. Food is a spiritual substance as much as a material one. The way we grow, share, and eat food together must be based on the eternal principles of justice and equity. In the 21st century we have lost sight of this.
All too often, we who are socially and economically privileged eat without looking up. Eco-theologian Sallie McFague, in Blessed Are The Consumers: Climate Change and The Practice of Restraint, notes how important the practice of paying attention is to French activist/mystic Simone Weil. Paying attention is how “God’s love is manifested in our love for others,” McFague writes. She quotes Weil: “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity. It is given to very few minds to notice that things and beings exist. …The root of all evil is daydreaming.”
By daydreaming, McFague says, “We do not ‘look’ at something or someone; we ‘eat’ it: we are like ‘cannibals’ consuming the world for our own benefit.”1
The power of paying attention applies to how we ourselves eat – how we grow and distribute food, how our eating habits either honor or dishonor our relations with our Mother Earth, and how we may deny the right to eat healthy food to others. Food justice is at the heart of our existential ecological crisis.
How we confront this injustice will determine the kind of people we are. The more mindful we become about the ethical compromises of our global food system – and the less we daydream – the more we will contribute to the work of justice and the more we will realize the sacred nature of food.
Vision of the Sage
In the Bhagavad-Gita, Krishna tells his dear friend, the deeply conflicted warrior Arjuna, what constitutes a truly spiritual and equitable vision of paying attention.
The humble sages, by virtue of true knowledge, see with equal vision a learned and gentle bra¯hmaṇa, a cow, an elephant, a dog and one who has been outcast (Chapter 5, Verse 18).
More than any other, this teaching of Krishna’s guides my work as an activist. If we see with the vision of the sage, if we see with equal vision, and if we act with that vision in our life and work, then we can understand the spiritual substance that is foundational to all living beings. Then we begin the journey toward acting without prejudice. We move toward the just life, removing conditions that force living beings to be outcast. We make the material substances of our lives, like food, into something sacred.
Corbin Hill Food Project is not an explicitly spiritual or sacred project. But every time we supply naturally grown vegetables and fruits from our network of organic farms in upstate New York to our 21 Farm Share sites across Harlem and the Bronx, we are doing much more than trading commodities for cash. We are combating a dominant economic model that has denied less-affluent communities their God given human right to access to healthy food.
Food Deserts and Mirages
Remedying this problem comes with its own hazards. In trying to improve conditions in the “food desert,” we may create, as Vann R. Newkirk II has so eloquently and bluntly stated, “food mirages,” where the sudden appearance of seemingly easy access to natural and organic foods precedes the onslaught of gentrification.2
We nevertheless have no such ulterior motive. We simply strive to do what our motto says: “supplying fresh food to the places that need it the most.” And it is rewarding in a distinctly sacred fashion that I’ve rarely found outside of my work when I was a monk.
I recently spent time with an older African-American woman who lives in Harlem and happened upon one of our Farm Share sites. She was not only intrigued but deeply moved to see what we were doing. Living in a household with eight family members, a household she had lived in for over 40 years, she described the daily struggle to feed her family in a way that would embolden their bodies and spirits.
Meeting her put a human face on the abstractions of food justice/injustice. In my entire life I have never been anywhere close to food insecurity. As much as I may think about it, write about it, or pray around it, I was tremendously naïve about what it means to be in an insecure and unjust food situation, until I began my work with Corbin Hill.
She gratefully signed up for a weekly share, and we assisted her with our “Money Match” program, which adjusts the price of the share to the income level of the household.
Maybe our work isn’t that remarkable in the grand scheme. We aren’t putting Monsanto out of business or striking at the heart of the massive ecological pollution of the global industrial food system. We are working as simply and directly as we can. In that simplicity, we are giving back to people who have been outcast because of prejudice and injustice.
At Corbin Hill, our vision is one of paying attention to the deeply rooted fact that food is a right. We are paying attention to the circumstances that prevent so many, too many, from exercising their right to good, honest food, and we are doing our humble best to change that. If that isn’t sacred or spiritual, I don’t know what is.
Christopher Fici is a Hindu eco-theologian graduating next year with a Master in Sacred Theology from Union Theological Seminary. He helps run the Edible Churchyard, a eco-theological urban agriculture and food justice program at Union. He is also a community organizer for Corbin Hill Food Project in Harlem.
1 Sallie McFague, Blessed Are The Consumers: Climate Change and The Practice of Restraint (Fortress Press, 2013), p. 55.