Small Enough to Manage, Big Enough to Matter

Andrew K. Barnett

Start Anyway. Sorry to lay it all on the first line, but there it is. None of us knows enough, has enough money, pulls enough strings, or carries the clout to justify a new project. Start anyway.

We can all pose unanswered questions that will kill a new idea before it gets out of committee – how will we pay for it, what will the neighbors say, what if ______ (insert the name of your local curmudgeon) gets upset, who’s to serve on the committee, what will we call the committee, do we even need a committee? These legitimate issues could clog a year’s worth of meetings.

Finding Answers Faster

But when we start anyway, we find answers faster. Invited to the inevitable messiness of new ideas, people take ownership and solve problems – tomatoes in need of stakes, say, or hungry guests waiting for bread. Intractable social ills suddenly offer concrete solutions and specific ways to get involved. Theology gets done.

Food justice is an element of the larger global fight for human dignity. As the 21st century trends toward 10 billion people and a very harsh global climate, we can only love neighbor as self when we work for a stable climate, a just society, and food security. When we synchronize initiatives that are small enough to manage and big enough to matter, devising solutions that make sense in specific places and times, then we pair local cost with local benefit, and things actually happen. Parks get built. Gardens get planted. Food gets served. We tunnel through political barriers. We mobilize pockets of political will. We cultivate partnerships and invent possibilities that we had never imagined. We get out of the office and onto the streets. Engaging our communities, enriching our spiritual and physical wellness, it’s possible to make measurable progress on issues Jesus cares about most passionately: human dignity for all, love for neighbor and self.

Planting Seeds of Hope

Two years ago, when Bishop Jon Bruno asked urban farmer Tim Alderson to help the Episcopal communities of Los Angeles build an integrated harvest and food distribution system, the bishop’s first words were, “We’ll start in January.”

Courageously, Tim took the job, built a program called Seeds of Hope, and I was thrilled to join his team recently. The work matters, because South-Central LA is a food desert, where 72 percent of the food shops offer nothing but fast food.1 Despite the energy, water, and pollution costs of a bacon double cheeseburger, it’s a shocking irony that the meat sandwich is still cheaper and easier to buy than veggies in low-income communities. Fresh produce is a luxury good in the city.2 Drive across town to the wealthier western side, and you’ll find only 41 percent of the restaurants serving fast food. The difference in life expectancy is about 12 years, due largely to food-related illness in poor communities. That’s the same gap that separates the United States from North Korea, and it’s wrong.

Twenty-four months ago, Seeds of Hope started as a new idea with lots of unanswered questions. Now it coordinates gardens at 75 churches and 22 schools, and we share fresh produce with 60 food pantries and 50 feeding programs. We won a $900,000 grant from the LA health department to help community leaders support nourishing food cultures. The Seeds of Hope innovation is to coordinate land, people, money, and community centers, all dedicated to bringing healthy food to people who need it. The goal is to farm the diocese and feed people real food.

Food allows us to sow relationships, re-cultivate a sense of gratitude, and fertilize community in ways only God can predict. Praying shapes believing. Doing does too. Lex agendi, lex corandi: What we do, we believe.

Does this work matter? Only time will tell. I can say it’s exciting to see people become aware of capacities they didn’t know they had. It is holy to partner with faith communities venturing beyond the stained glass and stone walls to break bread together. In a complex system, we only have control over ourselves. But I am in charge of me and you are in charge of you. If we want to spark a movement, start moving. Even and especially when we don’t know all the answers, start anyway.

The Rev. Andrew K. Barnett holds the Bishop’s Chair for Environmental Studies and Food Justice in the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles. He is a 2012 graduate of Yale’s Divinity and Environment Schools and pianist with the Theodicy Jazz Collective.


1 “Food Systems Snapshot 2013,” Los Angeles Food Policy Council. See /2013-food-system-snapshot.

2 “Food Systems Snapshot 2013.”