Food and Climate Change: The Perfect Penance

By Kelly Moltzen 7-05-2013 | Series:
Farm Fresh vegetables & fruits sign, Andre Blais /
Farm Fresh vegetables & fruits sign, Andre Blais /

As a nutrition student in college, I paid attention to the food we would eat on campus and became keenly aware of how much plastic and material was used and disposed of because of the way our food was packaged. It upset me to see so much packaging thrown in the trash every day. I raised concerns with the Dining Services committee and became a staunch advocate for a better recycling program on campus.

That was my first foray into understanding the relationship between the food system and environmental concerns and their consequent impact on health – something that became a much larger part of my life upon graduation, when I read the book The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan and joined a network of dietitians focused on Hunger & Environmental Nutrition.

The more I read and learned, the more I came to understand the sobering facts about the impacts that our industrial food system has on our society. Power in agriculture has become more and more concentrated over the past several decades, leading to many “monocrops” – large swaths of land devoted to growing only one type of crop rather than a diversity of crops that keeps fields vibrant and healthy. We’ve seen unprecedented extinction of species as a result. Artificial fertilizers lead to soil runoff, nitrous oxide emissions, and pesticides polluting our waterways. And, as organic farmer Joel Salatin points out, our industrialized meat production separates out the ecological solution of animal manure fertilizing the land and leads us to two problems: 1) subjecting animals to claustrophobic, unsanitary conditions where they are force-fed corn and other grains, necessitating giving antibiotics to the animals which lead to antibiotic resistance; and 2) methane waste and toxic manure pools which pollute the water instead of allowing animals to roam freely on pasture, which would create healthier animals and healthier ecosystems. Methane and nitrous oxide emissions are greenhouse gases that are many times more powerful than carbon dioxide, causing our industrialized food system to contribute somewhere between one-third and one-half of all greenhouse gas emissions. And greenhouse gases, as you may know, are the main cause of climate change.

Because our federal government’s Farm Bill has incentivized this industrial agriculture system, it creates artificially low costs of unhealthy processed foods in comparison to a diversity of fresh fruits and vegetables – crops that farmers are not incentivized to grow. These cost differences are significant in communities that struggle financially, and as a result, many of our brothers and sisters are not able to put three healthy meals on the table for their families every day. There are about 1 billion hungry and 1 billion overweight people in the world today, an epidemic that has been growing precipitously for the past three decades.

This system that leads to the destruction of the environment as well as human health and well-being is a system that does not value God’s creation. As God’s people, we must learn to understand what it means to live in right relationship with the rest of creation and in humility, see our interconnectedness with the rest of the ecosystem. We can look toward the example set by St. Francis of Assisi, who saw himself on equal footing with the rest of creation, a posture which led him to immensely value all that was around him and to speak up in the face of injustice. One of the best ways we can do this is through the food choices we make every day. Those who have studied the example of St. Francis have come to the conclusion that: 

"Eating locally is good for our health and the health of the planet, it is good for local farmers, it builds community, and it contributes significantly to curbing global warming. It is the perfect penitent action: requiring intention and sacrifice on the personal level, offering transformative potential on the societal level and in the meantime bringing into our lives many of the spiritual gifts that accompany the penitent life - simplicity, community, humility, and joy." - Care for Creation: A Franciscan Spirituality of the Earth

One example of a faith community taking action is Metro Hope Church in New York City, which has started its own vegetable garden, growing food that is donated to church members and the wider community. I remember my neighbors coming together to build the garden and have seen the hope and positive community that it has built. The first time I visited Metro Hope Church, I was given herbs and vegetables from the garden. It meant a lot to me — not only because I felt welcomed by being given free food — but because I could see that the church was really addressing the needs of the neighborhood, which was to get fresh vegetables to people. And along with growing food comes the preparing and eating of meals together, which builds community. These valuable benefits of the garden are in addition to that of actually curbing climate change. Especially in urban areas, the temperatures and heat island effect are lowered with increased vegetation.

There are many steps we can take within our churches and faith communities to begin to tackle the issues of climate change and food, while simultaneously supporting our health, the earth’s health, and reducing hunger worldwide. We can reduce our meat consumption; buy and prepare foods mindfully to reduce wasted food, energy, and packaging; buy organic when possible; and support local food production through shopping at farmer’s markets and eating seasonally. (Many of these tips are nicely laid out through Oxfam’s “GROW Method”). We can learn more about the diet-climate connection, find resources and inspiration through the Baltimore Food & Faith Project and the newly forming Franciscan Earth Corps, or start local food programs and food justice workshops like those organized through the Quixote Center’s Food and Faith Network.

God has provided a bounty for all of creation to enjoy (Psalm 104:10-14). It’s our responsibility now to work to ensure everyone can enjoy this bounty while maintaining and restoring the integrity of the earth.

Kelly Moltzen is the Nutrition Coordinator for Bronx Health REACH and leads the Food Justice Working Group efforts of NY Faith & JusticeYou can follow Kelly on twitter at @kellymoltzen.

This post was featured in Sojourner’s monthly Faith in Action newsletter, which you can join by clicking here.

Image: Farm Fresh vegetables & fruits sign, Andre Blais /

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