The Common Good
July 2004

Toward Food Justice

by Bethany Spicher Schonberg | July 2004

The wealthy feast, the poor go hungry. Surprise.

I biked past banners flapping in the breeze outside the Department of Health and Human Services:

I biked past banners flapping in the breeze outside the Department of Health and Human Services: "Eat more fruits and vegetables!" they said. "Take the stairs instead of the elevator!" The next day I read about it in The Washington Post. Not only had HHS launched a Slim Down America campaign, but Secretary Tommy Thompson himself was on a diet - fruit for breakfast, salad for lunch, no more beers at The Dubliner after work. "It's difficult at the beginning," Thompson told the Post, "but every single one of us has got to take care of ourselves. We can't expect somebody else to do it for us."

From the low-carb craze to the organic food movement, it seems that the whole world is watching what it eats. My own Mennonite Church USA, so fond of cream sauces and jello salads, nevertheless rallied behind a recent health care statement that included among its objectives: "Our potlucks will no longer look like an invitation to a heart attack."

With 64 percent of Americans overweight, and obesity-related health care costs approaching $117 billion annually, calls to shape up and eat right might be warranted if they didn't obscure the fact that not everyone has access to the produce aisle. A 2000 USDA analysis found that low-income women are half as likely as wealthy women to eat salad or fruit on any given day. A 2002 study by the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reported that they're also 50 percent more likely to be obese.

The temptation here is to cite anecdotes about welfare moms buying Twinkies with food stamps or about kids eating Fritos on the way to school, as evidence that the poor are overfed, not hungry. The fact is that requests for emergency food assistance increased by 17 percent last year, according to a survey of 25 cities. And from 1999 to 2002, says the USDA, the number of food-insecure households, urban and rural, rose by 15 percent to 12 million.

The hunger and obesity paradox exists in part because, calorie for calorie, cookies are cheaper than carrots by a lot. If you were hungry, would you spend your last food dollar on energy-packed pasta or nutrient-rich greens?

WHY IS BAD FOOD such a bargain? For starters, consider the fast-food dinner: soda with corn syrup, fries in corn oil, corn-fed beef on a white-flour bun. Consider all those amber waves of grain. Now consider that the world market price for wheat is 40 percent below the U.S. cost of production, according to the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. Corn is underpriced by 25 percent.

With commodities so cheap, food fortunes belong to those who sweeten and supersize a handful of kernels into a box of Corn Pops. Clearly, U.S. farmers aren't pocketing the profits. In fact, it takes $19 billion in government subsidies to keep them afloat. The winners in this game are Big Food corporations, whose profiteering (financed by taxpayers) not only endangers public health at home, but also undermines agriculture markets abroad.

In 1 Corinthians 11:20-30, Paul reprimands the Corinthians for celebrating communion in an unworthy manner. Apparently, the wealthy were feasting while the poor went hungry. Paul admonishes them to "discern the whole body," that is, remember the entire community before coming to the table. "Examine yourselves," he says, "and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup" (v. 28).

By contrast, the 21st-century wealthy are dieting, exercising, and buying locally grown raspberries while the poor bear the brunt of a food and agriculture system gone awry. In this context, how should the church discern the body?

A Mennonite church in Kansas tends a neighborhood garden; one in Iowa hosts a Community Supported Agriculture program. In Indiana, a congregation buys farmers market shares for its low-income members. Across the country, Christians of all stripes are sowing the seeds of a "just food" movement. For believers in a Bible full of agrarian parables, alternative economic models, rants against structural injustice, and injunctions to feed the hungry, it's 100 percent natural. Bethany Spicher

Bethany Spicher is a legislative assistant at the Mennonite Central Committee Washington Office and a former Sojourners intern.

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