Zucchini-molasses quinoa cake, beet salad with pumpkin seeds, freshly roasted chicken with spinach—such a menu seems to fit a health food café more than a free dinner for the needy. But the team at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Seattle, Washington, headed by Doug Macmillan, makes healthy and sustainable food the hallmark of its monthly Jubilee Dinner.
“You can’t die of starvation in Seattle, but you can die of malnutrition,” Macmillan explains of his dedication to serving fare brimming with nutrients, fiber and lean protein. He points to the common health problems of the disadvantaged and often homeless clients Jubilee serves—diabetes, hypertension, obesity, vitamin deficiencies—which can lead to premature death. Rather than serve processed and calorie-laden foods typical of a soup kitchen, Macmillan strives to do something different. “Just giving someone a baloney sandwich isn’t the best thing for them,” he says.
You’d be hard-pressed to find baloney, trans-fat or donuts at Jubilee. Much like slow foodies do for their own table, Macmillan buys zucchini, quinoa and leafy greens from Whole Foods and local organic farmers and grows herbs and lettuce at the garden on St. Andrew’s property.
“We’re kind of picky on what kind of food we’re getting. We don’t want frozen food all loaded with preservatives and salt—that’s unacceptable,” he says. Of course, many more non-profits would like to dish out similarly healthy food, but with budget constraints and a limited selection of donated goods, many organizations rely on canned green beans and frozen chicken more often than quinoa.
Still, Macmillan and the volunteers at St. Andrews aren’t the only Christian-affiliated folks that are taking a closer look at what goes into their kitchens and what happens in the fields.
Matt Smith, co-founder of the United Methodist community group, The Table, in Sacramento, California, has been leading families from his church to volunteer at the nearby Soil Born Farms since last fall. The group carpools to the farm, pitches in by weeding or planting onions, then shares a meal with Soil Born staff in the sunshine.
The Table chose Soil Born Farms in part because of its dedication to education and increasing access to safe, local, healthy produce in impoverished neighborhoods overrun by fast food.
For Smith, food serves as a vehicle for his religious community’s involvement in larger social issues as well as growth in personal faith. Their concern for food justice led the Christian group to participate in a fund-raising Run to Feed the Hungry last year.
“Jesus broke bread with outsiders. He found within the grains from the field and the fruits of the vine an invitation to a new way of life,” Smith says. “As a Christian community we are rooted in the deep tradition of breaking bread. It seems that intentional reflection on the ways we practice our faith at the table will always lead us back to the fields.”
It is no coincidence that faith-based groups are energized about changing the broken food system, explains Andrew Kang Bartlett, associate for national hunger concerns at the Presbyterian Hunger Program. “Christians are a very fertile constituency for the idea of rebuilding a just and sustainable food system because of all the references to food in the Bible, the centrality of food and sharing food, and caring for the earth and the land,” he says.
Kang Bartlett is organizing a 13-day agrarian road trip dubbed Heaven on Earth. This summer, he and roughly 20 others will drive (in fuel-efficient cars) from Louisville, Kentucky to the U.S. Social Forum in Detroit, making dozens of stops along the way at farms, sustainable restaurants, community gardens and field worker organizations.
“We’re creating an intentional community on wheels that explores agrarian food justice, local food revolutions and what the church and community groups are doing,” he says. “It’s part of our increased effort in education about food production issues. People can learn more about the whole process from the farm to their mouth, conditions of farm workers, the situation in food processing plants, the treatment of animals, the impact of an industrial food system, and through that education, there’s encouragement to lead them to action that help our very broken food system.”
This holistic view of a Christian responsibility to be stewards of the environment, animals and social justice is a renewal of the religion’s earth-conscious roots, explains Laura Hobgood-Oster, PhD, professor and Paden Chair in Religion at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas.
“From early on, there were ideas of God and nature as a whole, that all of creation is good, and that humans should care for, not dominate, the rest of nature. There’s an environmental ethic that runs throughout the history of the Christian tradition, ” Hobgood-Oster says. “Christian communities today are responding and embodying these ideas.”
Although churches that buy fair-trade coffee, encourage congregants to use farmer’s market fare for potlucks, and provide sustainable food in their soup kitchens are the minority, their numbers are growing.
“Most food has been commoditized in our society, so food becomes devalued,” says Kang Bartlett. “A lot of what the food movement is about is a ‘resacredization’ of food, to make up a word. It’s the understanding that food is sacred, as is the whole process of growing that food, including who grows it. What you put in your mouth is more than the sum of the chemical nutrients. I hope that Christians are able to be part of that rebuilding, to recognize food as sacred.”