Growing an Interfaith Food System

The global economy teeters on the brink of an even more serious economic disaster than the 2008 financial crisis, which now seems set to spark a new and more serious round of turmoil. The impacts of the next cycle of crisis are likely to spill out into other parts of the economy – including the long supply chains of the global food system that bring food to market – and worsen an already severe food crisis that causes famine in Somalia and disease in the United States.

The inevitable move away from the global food system rooted in Wall Street finance will be difficult, but it provides an opportunity for faith communities to help launch new local food systems while bringing food and productive economic activity into neighborhoods devastated by generations of neglect and worse.

Even if we escape another Great Depression, we still face rising commodity prices and global food scarcity that will tend to drive up food prices at a time that people can least afford it. As corporate supermarket chains consolidate, health in poor neighborhoods gets worse as a smaller number of companies chase greater concentrations of profit by shaving off their “underperforming” locations.

Large chains will generally be able to outlast smaller grocers by consolidating operations, and the likely result will be fewer jobs, fewer sources of good food and longer trips to buy groceries. This dynamic is likely to be strongest in relatively poor neighborhoods, where profit margins are generally lower and good food is already scarce.

The solutions offered to such food deserts are usually along the lines of banning new fast food outlets or encouraging developers to build grocery stores where the expected profitability is insufficient to attract development.  The former approach does nothing to address the lack of a positive alternative source of food; the latter approach overlooks the fact that there’s an economic reason why those neighborhoods lack grocery stores in the first place, which will intensify as the economy deteriorates.

How shall we produce our food, if not by an unsustainable global system?

 

Cooperative Response

The Hebrew prophet Jeremiah preached while Israel was in exile in Babylon, “Build ye houses, and dwell in them; and plant gardens, and eat the fruit of them.” (Jer 29:5)

This passage addressed how to live in an imperfect world, while looking forward to the return home.  Rather than relying on the benevolence (and competence) of government or philanthropists, we must find way of address the immediate problems without reinforcing dynamics of dependence.

Home gardening is the most obvious way to respond to Jeremiah’s call, and is an important response for those who have access to a garden. But we should also consider cooperative responses that are rooted in the teachings and practices of many faith traditions.  By drawing on models like the Jewish kibbutz, the Christian healthcare cost-sharing ministry and interest-free Islamic finance, we can discern solutions that both address the immediate need for food and the underlying causes of food scarcity.

The interfaith community has a great opportunity to address the looming food crisis head-on while addressing an alarming rise in unemployment and drop in financial security that are pushing many of us to make dietary choices that may be harmful to our long-term health.

Rather than individually sitting idle or engaging in an increasingly difficult search for work, we should collectively engage in community organizing drives that will have both short-term and long-term benefits. In the short term, organizing brings us something productive to do, keeps up our spirits and joins us together as a community while providing us with the freshest of produce. In the long term, applying the existing economic models from all three Abrahamic faiths could lay the foundations for a new system of food production and distribution, based on local control and people’s needs rather than the drive for profit.

 

Building a Good Food System

There are three main components to any food system: production, retail, and distribution. In a locally-based system, production and retail will involve many small projects in a variety of settings, and distribution will involve collaborative work on a regional level, including extensive communication with secular groups working on this issue. Distribution is a more complex challenge that will be built upon a foundation of production and retail, but is still necessary to truly sustain the other two components that are the focus of this writing.

Whenever I see a vacant lot or an empty expanse of lawn that is always watered but never used, I wonder how many people could be fed if we used that land differently. It would be naïve to think that we can meet all of a city’s food needs by ripping up lawns, but certainly we can take a step in that direction. This would reduce our dependence on expensive food from afar and improve our flexibility to deal with short-term emergencies.

Retail food co-ops working with local farmers can plug some of the holes in a city’s food availability and build commercial activity where it is sorely needed, but we should also be looking at how food can be produced where it is needed most urgently.

To address this need, I propose something that I call the lovegarden. This name is a bit of a riff on the old wartime victory gardens and it reminds us of an opportunity to reach out to our neighbors in an important way.

Creating a lovegarden can be as simple as tearing up lawn around a church and planting vegetables. When the harvest is ready, it can be cooked in community meals or distributed to neighbors. Other than the expense of inputs, money is not involved. In some cases a young and energetic congregation may partner with another that has land but perhaps fewer people inclined toward picking up a shovel.

However, we must also encourage local commercial production, which might be paired with local processing to create a year-round supply of jams and sauces; this would create economic activity as well as jobs.

In suburban and rural areas, faith communities can grow food on land owned directly by the congregation or indirectly by its members (possibly through agricultural land trusts). These may be staffed by a relatively small team of full time workers, supported by a network of volunteers made up largely, but hopefully not exclusively, by congregants. These businesses would probably function best as autonomous worker cooperatives, operating as a tenant of the congregation, for a variety of legal and theological reasons.

Urban congregations may be especially interested in organizing the retail end of the system, as many of their neighborhoods are lacking in good food stores, and ready to benefit from the retained profits of a community-owned enterprise. They may also have some opportunities for food production, but it seems that these would be less likely to be viable for commercial channels.

There is certainly room for crossover volunteers, particularly with regards to any farming operations that spring up. Urban groups may send members out to help with production, or even take the lead on cultivation of some properties.

 

Time to Plant

Food prices are getting out of hand, and with gas prices up and jobs going down, we need to start thinking in terms of feeding people with our own sweat and love, rather than relying on the profit-driven system that created this mess. Like the Israelites in Babylon, it seems that we’re going to be in our current situation a while longer. So we need to start finding ways to feed ourselves and our neighbors.

Creating gardens where food is freed from its bonds to money and creating farms that generate jobs, dignity and food, would be a powerful testament to our faith traditions’ teachings about love for community. These efforts would show neighbors love and invite them to share the process of creating a bounty, much more clearly than simply sending out surplus charity.

The looming shift demands that we all work together to create a new way of feeding ourselves and each other – or perhaps it means rediscovering the old way. In any case, linking together faith traditions through common values of how food ought to be produced will provide the basis for fruitful conversation.

This writing is cross-posted at http://www.dcfoodforall.com.

 

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