Food breaks down barriers like few things can. It’s almost like it has magical powers or something. With apologies to my wheat-averse and gluten-free readers, who doesn’t love a fresh loaf of homemade bread? And since this is the evangelical channel of Patheos, (he has to make at least one appearance per blog post, doesn’t he?) the man Jesus Christ loved him some food! Throughout the pages of the gospels the Lord is frequently spotted…eating. Loaves and fishes, anyone? There’s something hugely significant about this.
As somewhat of a foodie and a lover of incarnational ministry, what I would love to see the Body do more intentionally (and it is happening in some places) is bridge the gaps in our society pertaining to food. Every once in a while I will stumble upon an article like this one from NPR, or this piece from the Atlantic which illuminates the challenges and distills some of the realities about the American dinner table. One may not be able to afford the organic arugula at Whole Foods, but it is absolutely possible to eat healthily on a tight budget. Perhaps surprisingly, according to Harvard epidemiologist Dr. Dariush Mozzaffarian, the difference between eating healthily and unhealthily only amounts to about $1.50 per day (see the NPR article for a more thorough explanation of the research he conducted). This is totally fixable.
I became particularly interested in this in my 2os during a few seasons where I lived among the poor in rough neighborhoods and learned how to do life with them. It was quite a departure from my upbringing having been raised on 180 acres of farmland in rural Virginia where my neighbors were mostly Angus cattle, cornfields, and Mennonites who knew how to cook. My family instilled in me the importance of giving generously and to care for those less fortunate, the refugee, and the orphan. They also taught me how to eat and prepare food. I didn’t realize then how valuable those good eating and cooking skills were.
When I lived among the poor I was shocked to discover their lack of basic nutrition knowledge. Who did not know that eating fatty junk foods and drinking sugary beverages made you gain weight? Some of them didn’t. I knew middle-class and wealthy people with bad eating habits but they at least knew what they were doing to themselves. The poor not so much. Some of my neighbors during these seasons even had more money in their bank accounts than I did but many of them were were trapped in dysfunctional relationships, inefficient government structures, and addictive habits that kept them down, rendering them unable to escape the clutches of poverty. And when you eat terribly, which is itself an addictive habit, your own body becomes a sort of prison.
That was quite a sobering revelation. How ironic that in United States today some of the poorest people in our society are some of the most obese. For most of history if you were poor you were probably thin and malnourished. Nowadays, many poor Americans are overweight and still malnourished. They may not feel as though they are physically starving, but their bodies ARE starving for vital nutrients, and their well-being collapses after years of an unhealthy diet and lifestyle. It is not an exaggeration to say that it is like slow form of death.
Even when one considers food deserts (see the Atlantic piece),’ neighborhoods where access to fresh vegetables and healthy food options are extremely limited or not available at all, there remain several dimensions to poverty that few politicians have the guts to articulate. So here it goes. I know there are socio-economic complexities to all of this, but these are just a few my observations from personal, lived experience:
1. So much of poverty is rooted in a negative mental attitude. This extends to how people eat.
While there are absolutely systemic inequities in certain places and governmental failures that aggravate socially distressed, poor communities, no bureaucracy can subvert the destructive thought patterns in an individual hellbent on eating whatever he wants. These mindsets serve only to beget more misery, and so many who are languishing in despair never have any hope that it will be any better so why not enjoy what little pleasure you can? Why not down a liter of Coca-Cola, a BigMac, and a King-size candy bar if one so wants? Any long-term thinking about what the poor put in their mouths is practically non-existent.
To solve this problem you need real people committed to doing the gritty, long-suffering work of incarnational ministry where by living among the people and just doing life with them you can build trust. While faithfully proclaiming the gospel you can model an alternative to poor eating–perhaps by inviting to poor to dinner like Jesus did. Who knows, he just might show up and multiply the food you’ve prepared. He’s done it before. You then can impart knowledge without sounding paternalistic. As you build relationships and community, mindsets start to change and if that trust is established, those destructive eating habits will, slowly but surely, go away.
2. It’s not just about lack of money, but about a lack of knowledge and basic skills.
Not only do many poor people not know the basics of nutrition, many do not know how to prepare food or make a grocery budget. So they often buy “cheap” pizzas, Ramen noodles, and other kinds of processed foods that can be consumed in mere minutes while believing the lie that it is less expensive. I know what it is like to eat rice and beans more often than I wanted to, and that staple will not break the bank, does not take long to prepare, and has a complete protein and complex carbohydrate. By teaching a few nutrition basics and food prep skills you equip people with the power to self-govern and improve their lives.
3. Even when armed with knowledge and skills, many poor don’t believe they deserve to eat well. It’s an identity issue.
This is the most heartbreaking one. Just as long-term thinking about food choices proves scarce among the poor, the affect of poverty on the mind bruises their sense of who they are, crippling their identity. Many are so trapped mentally that they adopt a fatalistic outlook on life and surmise that they do not even deserve anything better.
This is where, I believe, the gospel comes in. The heartbeat of the gospel message is that at the cross God reconciled the world to himself through his son Jesus. We have been given a new life in Him and we get to live in the power of his resurrection. During his earthly ministry Jesus reaffirmed that the greatest of the commandments is to love God and to love your neighbor as yourself. That last ‘as yourself’ is key. You can’t love God or your neighbor if you do not love yourself. If you treat your body with contempt by eating crappy food day in and day out, it is not an expression of self-love. But when people get a revelation of a Father who loves them, everything else changes. When that paradigm shift happens, lives are transformed. The gospel is, after all, the most renewable resource in the world.
All this to say, if we truly care about the poor the answer is not necessarily to throw more money through state agencies at them (that might be needed in some cases), but loving them enough to get to know them as friends and family. When we love the poor we worship the Lord. Mother Theresa once that said that it was fashionable to talk about poor, but less fashionable to talk with them. Poor people are not projects to be completed or problems to be solved. They are just like everyone else, image-bearers of God. But the poor do put us in touch with need, and Jesus really understood this.
From that incident in Matthew 9 where he was chowing down with those tax collectors and “sinners” to that famous Last Supper Jesus shared with his disciples, Christ tapped into something primal and important. Every last one of us, rich or poor, has to eat in order to live, so why should we not encounter the living God in it?
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