Why Do You Eat?
At the most basic level, we eat for the same reasons we breathe and drink – to survive. But eating is so much more than mere survival. We use food to celebrate and to console. We share meals to share time and stories with friends and family. At its best, food is an essential part of creating community. It’s why eating alone can be uncomfortable. At some level, it feels like something is missing.
Eating is so much a part of being human, in being a creature of this world, that food is mentioned in both creation stories in the book of Genesis. The stories are different in many ways. However, they both tell us God created plants and trees with fruits and seeds for us to eat (Gen 1:29, 2:9). The story in Genesis 1 goes on to say God made every green plant to feed all animals (Gen 1:30). Food is a gift from God for both human creatures and non-human creatures. Psalm 104 sings the praise of creation and tells of God’s gift of food.
“You cause the grass to grow for the cattle,
and plants for people to use,
to bring forth food from the earth,
and wine to gladden the human heart,
oil to make the face shine, and bread to strength the human heart.” (Psalm 104:14)
The psalm goes on to describe the lives of people and animals, and then returns to the gift of food:
“These all look to you
to give them their food in due season;
when you give to them, they gather it up;
when you open your hand, they are
filled with good things.” (Psalm 104:27-28)
God’s gift of food is intended to fill us with good things.
In the Gospels, the stories of Jesus often occur when he is sharing a meal with others. All four gospels tell the story of Jesus feeding thousands with only five loaves of bread and two fish, (Lk 9:17). His final act with his disciples is to share a meal, and in it, Jesus commissions the Eucharistic meal, in which Christians share to this day.
Communion with all in Jesus is at the heart of the Eucharistic meal. Dr. Norman Wirzba, in his book Food and Faith, reflects on the way our daily eating may be a form of communion, as we literally take God’s creation into our being. In Wirzba’s words,
“Eating joins people to each other, to other creatures and the world, and to God through forms of ‘natural communion’ too complex to fathom.” (p. 41, second edition)
The gift of food is intended to be more than just fuel for our bodies. Food is hospitality, as we see in the story of Abraham and Sarah (Gen 18:1-7). They feed three strangers who visit them and are blessed by God in return. This story is one of many in scripture that equates food to hospitality. It’s an acknowledgement that God’s hospitality is the source of all our food. We, in our gratitude for this gift, are called to see food as a means for offering hospitality to others.
Food is also about companionship. The Latin root of the word itself is a reference to sharing bread with someone: “panis” = bread; “com” = with. This companionship goes beyond the people around the table. Using bread as an example, when we eat bread, we are connected to the people who grew the wheat, ground the flour, and baked the bread.
Our need for food binds us into a web of interdependence with many other lives. It’s easy to think of the human lives, but food also connects us to other creatures, both the ones we eat, and the ones who are part of the food web. Examples are the bees who pollinate crops and soil microbes who create many of the nutrients in our food. Eating reminds us that we are dependent on and part of all creation. Ultimately, as a species, we are only going to be as healthy as creation is.
Today’s global food system is nothing like the agrarian culture we see in scripture. We are thousands of years away from those stories, but one thing didn't change for most of that time: food was grown near where it was eaten. Until about 150 years ago, it was not practical to ship large quantities of food, even dry goods, for great distances. Food had to be grown close to where people lived and where water was available.
The process of growing food and getting it to the table required a lot of people. Almost 50% of the people in the U.S. worked in agriculture in 1870. That’s just the people growing and harvesting the food. The local area would have employed butchers, millers, bakers, blacksmiths, and all the other trades needed to support the farmer and to convert the crop into food to be eaten. Eating was a community endeavor. People knew who grew their food, what the land looked like, and how animals were treated.
The invention of the internal combustion engine in the mid-1800s changed this. The engine made it possible to efficiently transport food long distances by train and ship, first by burning coal, and then oil and diesel. The engine also transformed labor, as machinery took the place of workers and made it possible to work larger farms. During this time, labor shifted away from agriculture to factories in urban areas, which increased the need to transport more food.
By the time of my grandparents in the 1930s, only about 1 in 5 people worked in agriculture; however, many families still had a vegetable garden. For those who didn’t, produce was grown locally and transported into town each day. This changed with the invention of mechanical refrigeration. It made the shipping and storage of produce feasible. Produce farming then became consolidated in regions where the climate was favorable to it. One study suggests a vegetable now travels approximately 1500 miles before being sold to the person who will eat it. And agricultural labor has shrunk to less than 2% of our workforce.
Since the 1930s, the number of U.S. farms has decreased significantly, while the total number of acres per farm is five times what it was in 1930. We now have fewer and larger farms than 100 years ago. The impact of this consolidation has been particularly hard on black farmers. Reconstruction programs after the Civil War resulted in black farmers owning about 14% of all farms in the year 1920. As farms started to consolidate, racism built into lending practices and property laws was used to cut black citizens out of land ownership and agriculture. Today, black farmers only own 1.3% of U.S. farmland.
Modern shipping and the consolidation of agriculture have turned food production into a global industry. If you have the money, it’s now possible to buy almost anything you want to eat whenever you want it. At the same time, large numbers of people in the U.S. live in food deserts, with limited access to non-processed food, fruits, and vegetables. These food deserts disproportionately affect people of color and people who are economically disadvantaged.
The global food system also has come at a cost to the environment and our health. Emissions from the engines that make all that shipping and cold storage possible contribute to climate change and regional air pollution. The produce and animals we eat are grown to be uniform in size for handling and packaging. Produce is grown to be hardy for shipping and storing, instead of tasty for eating. The tasteless tomato is the well-known example of this change. At the same time, the nutritional value of produce has decreased.
Food is no longer about the community of creation, hospitality, companionship, and loving our neighbor. We now shop for food like we shop for shoes. It’s just another commodity we buy, even ordering it online. We are disconnected from its source. What we don’t see, we can’t know. What we don’t know, we can’t love. We seldom know who grows our food, what the land looks like, or how the animals are treated.
In many ways, it’s like the old agricultural towns we drive by on the highway. Our food, like an old rural town, is a shell of its former self; nothing more than a commodity to be consumed or discarded. We are not healthy, and neither is creation.
It doesn’t have to be this way. We can make different choices. Today is a good day to start.