Food is a physiological, basic human need. Yet more than that, it is bio-psycho-social-spiritual as a necessity for human life. In his book, Food & Faith: A Theology of Eating, Norman Wirzba (2011) states: “Food is about the relationships that join us to the earth, fellow creatures, loved ones and guests, and ultimately God. How we eat testifies to whether we value the creatures we live with and depend on” (p. 4). He goes on by saying that “To receive food as a gift and as a declaration of God’s love and joy is to receive food in a theological manner” (Wirzba, 2011, p. 11).
Our relationship with food is a long and complicated one and it is broken. We have distorted our relationship with food from what God intended in the Garden of Eden, and yet God seeks to restore his gift of food for all creation. We have the great honor to partner with God in doing such important and timely restorative work through food. Every meal is sacramental. Food is God’s sustaining love made edible. And it is through the food movement, which seeks to promote a form of justice known as food justice, that I want to encourage the people of God (and specifically in this instance – social workers who are Christians) to engage in and play a prominent role in Kingdom restoration through food. Jane Addams herself linked bread and peace as fundamental “tools” for seeking social justice and social change through restorative relationships in her efforts to generate an “…insistence on a common good that redefines the understanding of ‘our people’ beyond one particular ethnic group, tribe, or nationality” (Lee, 2011, p. 66).
We need to “go back to the garden” and seek to bring the world of human habitation into harmony with the creation God called good. Going back to the garden doesn’t mean we all need to move out into the country and start an organic farm – it is both a rural and urban, a global restorative story. Going back to the garden enables us to love and care for our neighbors in which all have a place at the table.
The food justice movement presents multiple opportunities for going back to the garden. The food justice movement is a social justice, economic justice, racial justice, and environmental justice movement. It works for food justice in response to the damage caused by the broken food system in which the health of individuals, families, communities, nonhuman animals raised for food, and the environment are being compromised. As such, food justice seeks to ensure that the benefits and risks of where, what, and how food is grown, produced, transported, distributed, accessed and eaten are shared fairly. Food justice presents a transformation of the current food system, including but not limited to eliminating disparities and inequities (Gottlieb & Joshi, 2010, p. 6).
This is what God intended. This is heaven on earth now. A good starting point for restoring the Kingdom of God on earth now through food is by seeking to be Christ-centered food citizens cherishing and engaging in food-related behaviors that generate shalom and support through the food justice movement. The Food Empowerment Project and A Well-Fed World are organizations that provide helpful resources for being a conscious food citizen.
As Christians who are social workers, we are well equipped to engage in the food justice movement not only because of our skill set, but also because of our desire to serve God through our profession. Despite food tending to be seen as a commodity and product: “Food is God’s love made nutritious and delicious; food is fellowship; food is participating in God’s hospitality in the world” (Wirzba, 2017). And so there are several ways social workers and faith-based organizations can engage in promoting the food justice movement in their own communities. The following list is not exhaustive, but represents an invitation to participate in God’s hospitality via food as an expression of our faith through social work practice:
• Work to dismantle racism and oppression in the food system through resources from the Growing Food & Justice for All Initiative & Racial Equity Tools
• Conduct a Community Food Assessment through resources such as the CDC’s Healthy Places
• Launch a community garden meeting in community
• See the American Community Garden Association’s guidelines for launching a community garden
• If applicable, partner with a local university’s master gardener’s extension for planning out a community garden.
• Create a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) or partner with an already existing CSA to bring fresh, seasonal produce to consumers
• Connect with a local farmers’ market manager to make sure they are authorized to accept SNAP benefits
• Help eligible individuals & families get signed up for SNAP and use those benefits to garden vegetables and plants with their benefits – see SNAP Gardens
• Partner with local government to start educational gardens in food deserts (lack of access to healthy foods) and food swamps (plethora of unhealthy foods)
• Partner with neighborhood community development organizations to start a neighborhood Food-Coop
• In academic settings, look to the following organizations for helpful resources: National Farm to School Network; the Edible School Yard Project
• Form a Food Policy Advisory Council in your community – help local, regional, or state governments address food system challenges and others
• Read the Food Policy Council Manual: Doing Food Policy Councils Right: A Guide to Development and Action – Michael Burgan & Mark Winne, Mark Winne Associates (2012)
• Discover how your elected representative voted to keep food healthy, safe, and affordable through Food Policy Action
• Utilize Bread for the World’s 2013 Offering of Letters campaign kit for advocacy purposes
• Gottlieb, R., & Joshi, A. (2010). Food justice: Food, health, and the environment. Massachusetts: MIT Press.
• Lee, L. Y. (2011). Hungry for peace: Jane Addams and the hull-house museum’s contemporary struggle for food justice. Peace & Change, 36(1), 62-79.
• Wirzba, N. (2011). Food and faith. A theology of eating. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
• Wirzba, N. (2017, October 26). The spirituality of eating with Dr. Norman Wirzba. Presented at the Christian Century Lecture, Chicago, IL.
Cini Bretzlaff-Holstein, DSW, LSW serves as the BSW Program Director and Department Chair in the Social Work Department at Trinity Christian College in Palos Heights, IL. The majority of her professional background is in the areas of child welfare, congregational social work, youth mentoring programs, and community development. Her scholarly interests include food & environmental justice, and the human-animal relationship. Additionally, she is a licensed social worker in the state of Illinois. Cini has been a member of NACSW since 2006.