Many folks attempt a food or drink “cleanse” in January. This could mean going on a diet, abstaining from alcohol or simply trying out a new relationship with food and exercise. Diet and self-help book marketers have taken full advantage of this new type of resolution and shout at us from all directions about which diet is the “best.” What’s “best,” though, rarely considers a diet’s sustainability.
Did you know that it was possible to make food choices that positively impact the planet? Did you realize that factors such as how much land a crop needs or how far a fruit or vegetable travels to get to your plate can directly influence global warming?
The diet we choose is either sustainable—meaning that it will allow us to continue to live peaceably with other species well into the future—or it’s not, leading to increases in greenhouse gases and decreases in species diversity, serious consequences that could lead to the end of life as we know it.
Choosing a sustainable diet is tricky, as there are opinions of all kinds about which eating practices have the best returns for our health and the planet’s. Most experts agree that a diet low in farmed meats and high in plant matter is best, as it decreases water and air pollution and increases the amount of freshwater and land available for both humans and non-domesticated creatures. However, some studies suggest that there are sustainable ways to raise livestock and that there is not enough arable land on earth to grow all the plants we would need if everyone suddenly decided to go “vegan.”
An additional complication is the issue of “food justice.” Food deserts are places, mostly located in urban centers, where access to fresh fruits and vegetables is limited. There may not be easy access to supermarkets or farmer’s markets,
forcing people to choose less healthy, less sustainable food options. Compounding the food justice issue is that organic and planet-friendly choices tend to cost more, putting sustainable diets out of reach for many families.
St. John UMC Digs In To Sustainable Food Issues
The United Methodist Social Principles “call upon our churches to do all in their power to speak prophetically to the matters of food supply and…to develop ministries that build food security in local communities.” (BOD ¶163.H). Last week, St. John United Methodist Church in Anchorage, Alaska, did just that!
St. Johns’ Earth Stewards Team served a vegetarian dinner during their regular Wednesday Night Supper last week, hoping to shine a light on the joys of sustainable eating. A large crowd of people attended the dinner, which was followed by sustainable food trivia and a talk by Catherine Kemp, a steering committee member of the Municipality of Anchorage’s Climate Action Plan.
Ms. Kemp spoke about improving food systems in Anchorage to ensure that food is produced sustainably, that farmers are paid fairly, and that healthy, clean food is available to everyone, regardless of their income. Interesting to note is that, according to the Alaska Food Policy Council, “Nearly one of every three Alaska farms sells direct to household consumers, placing Alaska among the top states in direct sales.” This is good news, as it suggests that small family farms are thriving and that there are good opportunities for Alaskans to purchase locally grown fruits and vegetables.
A unique challenge addressed at the dinner was Alaska’s short growing season. Author Michael Pollan, who has written many books on sustainable diets including In Defense of Food and The Omnivore’s Dilemma, suggests that those living in short-season climates might “put up” local food when it’s available and freeze or can it for use during the long winters. He also suggests carefully reading labels to determine how far canned or preserved foods have traveled and choosing foods that are locally produced when fresh foods aren’t readily available. Cities tackling the sustainable food issue should continue building creating programs to teach people to preserve summer fruits and vegetables and the locally-harvested fish and game that is a mainstay of Alaskan diets. The Alaska Food Policy Council suggests that local governments support the building of more commercial kitchens and food storage “packhouses” to support these initiatives and to encourage entrepreneurs who might not be able to afford food processing facilities on their own.
Congregants and visitors to St. John UMC’s Wednesday Night Dinner were also given the opportunity to take action, ending the night by writing and signing letters to their legislators in support of changes to the food system that would make it more sustainable.
What Can Your Church Do?
Research sustainable food issues as a Sunday School class. There are some great online resources that will nurture your group’s faith formation and inspire you to take action for food justice in your community. Check out Christian Food Movement and read about a faith-based farming ministry, Plainsong Farm.
Get to know your local Conservation District – every county has one! Conservation Districts are treasure troves of information regarding best farming practices and will gladly send out a speaker to share information about sustainable food and food justice issues impacting your region. Their farm planners may even help you to de-pave your church parking lot and turn it into a mini-farm! Invite other local churches to join you!
Consider serving a sustainable meal once a month. You could feature produce from your local farmer’s market, food grown or preserved by your own congregants or choose a vegetarian menu. Take time during dinner to share about your menu choices and to pray for the many hands that harvested, processed and served the food you enjoy every day. Top off the evening with some fair-trade coffee or chocolate, which will ensure that the farmers who grew those coffee and cacao beans are paid a fair wage and are held to strict environmental standards.
Start a community garden and compost your food waste. Growing your own food allows you to seriously reduce your carbon footprint—after all, the only energy you’ll spend is on walking out to the garden and choosing your evening meal. Community gardens also give folks a chance to get to know each other (and your church) and you might even grow enough to share with someone who lives in a food desert. Composting your food waste means that the food you grow will be lush, green and productive and might also reduce your church’s waste collection bill.
Advocate for healthy and sustainable agriculture policies. Hold a letter-writing campaign in support of sustainable agriculture, humane treatment of livestock, fair wages for farm workers and access to nutritious food for everyone.
In Genesis 2:16-17, God said, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden…” but we know that within that choice, there were good options, better options and one very bad one. Choosing what to eat is complicated, but if we attempt to learn all we can about sustainable options, we may have a better chance of picking what’s best, not just for ourselves, but for all of creation.