To live, we must daily break the body and shed the blood of creation. The point is, when we do this knowingly, lovingly, skillfully, reverently, is is a sacrament; when we do it ignorantly, greedily, clumsily, destructively, it is a desecration…in such desecration, we condemn ourselves to spiritual and moral loneliness, and others to want.
If we’re going to reform our nation’s unsustainable agricultural system, we’re going to need to tackle economic inequality. That is to say, when you can’t afford fresh arugula, you definitely can’t afford organic fresh arugula.
We’re going to have to ask why some people are poor and others rich. We’re going to have to ask why race is still linked to poverty. We’re going to have to ask why 22% of food prep workers live in food insecure houses, and 31% are at risk for diet-related diseases. We’re going to have to ask why “…the 11 million people upon whom we depend to cook and serve our meals at restaurants, airports, hotels, and cafeterias are often unable to put enough healthy food on their tables at home.” We’re going to have to ask why minimum wage only gives you enough money to buy food that will kill you, and gives you no health care to pay for your slow death by diet-related diseases.
We’re going to have to ask these questions, and then, we’re going to have to do something about it. Spiritual formation starts in the heart and sticks when it moves the feet and the hands. So that’s why it’s insufficient to just buy local veggies. We can’t just vote with our forks. We need to be participants in a holistic vision for justice that includes real wage growth.
There are a few holistic visions out there, but I will be focusing on UNITE HERE’s cafeteria worker campaign called “Real Food, Real Jobs.”
Here’s the big idea. In many places, cafeteria workers are increasingly asked to simply heat frozen, pre-packaged foods for students. Raw foods are trucked from farms where they’re grown to industrial processing factories, and then frozen before being again trucked hundreds of miles away to universities to be warmed. Wages have been cut in some places as skilled food preparation specialists are replaced by “warmers.”
Or, in some colleges concerned with sustainability, workers who previously were warming foods are asked to prepare whole meals from scratch, but are neither re-trained, nor given enough time to prepare real-food meals. That is to say, sometimes, when sustainable food is introduced, cafeterias introduce unsustainable worker practices.
So UNITE HERE’s Local 23 is organizing to build coalitions with community food activists who can help them in their campaign to include wage, real food preparation, and sustainability provisions in contracts up for renewal in the next year at five schools here in the Washington DC area: Georgetown Law, American University, Gallaudet University, Howard University, and Trinity College.
The message is clear: cafeteria workers want to cook again. There’s a consistent message: we love our students, and we want to cook beautiful, healthy foods for them.
For me, a job well done is a prayer, just as the gift of good food and hospitality is a blessing. Similarly, unhealthy foods are a curse, and serving a curse to others makes a good person uneasy.
The movement for human rights and the movement for sustainability need one another. We can no longer afford to articulate a partial vision for a sustainable society.
We are all parts of the globalized organism that is our food economy. We are pieces of a greater whole. In the service economy we play different roles, some of us are hands and some are mouths, but we are all interconnected in a living oikos, or household, that feeds and sustains every living thing that draws breath.
From the perspective of our pre-industrial Scriptures, in fact, not just people, but the entire created earth is God’s household, and we are members, along with all growing and creeping things of the earth. But unlike animals and plants, we are workers in God’s vineyard, de facto stewards who can choose to plant and grow, to build beautiful creative communities. We have the power, also, to disrupt ecosystems and crush growing things.
And thus we must decide how we use our power, unlike animals and plants.
In the midst of this, our actions around the communion table, our food habits, are part of a global ecology of justice that can build up or tear down people and the earth.
And so I encourage you to stand with the cafeteria workers and stand for the earth by reading, and, if you feel so moved, signing the Real Food, Real Jobs pledge. But beyond the minimal online petition, I encourage you to reflect on your own life. Do I bless or curse with the food I serve myself and others? Do I treat all the people around the table as holy? Do my actions flow forth from love?
Here’s an excerpt from the Real Food, Real Jobs pledge. This is an example of a holistic vision that I believe we need to support as people of faith.
REAL FOOD: We support a food system that emphasizes fresh cooked meals rather than processed items, prioritizes the local and ethical sourcing of ingredients, and utilizes production methods that are humane and respect our environment.
REAL JOBS: Food workers should be paid a living wage (with health and retirement benefits, including enough to afford real food for their families. Workers should be free to publicly disclose food safety or quality issues, and to form a union through a legal and democratic process of their own choosing without threats and intimidation.
TRANSPARENCY: Transparency is fundamental in changing our food system. Food service institutions should fully disclose the source of their food purchases, and the wages and benefits paid to food workers.
Let this vision be so, oh God. Amen.
Jeremy John has been an activist ever since he accidentally ate the red pill instead of the more harmless blue one. He converted to Christianity while serving a six-month prison term for civil disobedience to close the School of the Americas. He blogs and tweets about faith. He currently coordinates the Crabgrass Christians Initiative at the Quixote Center, building grassroots alternative food economies in faith institutions that embody the beloved community. He serves as a volunteer chaplain to OccupyDC with the OccupyChurch movement.