A Hunger for Justice: Food Insecurity and God’s Abundance
By Norbert Wilson
I raise the morsel of bread, the host. Looking into the expectant eyes, I state: “The body of Christ, broken for you.” Laying the crumby bread into the bowl-shaped hands, I smile. For a brief moment our hands touch. Then, almost reflexively, the recipient scoops the morsel into their mouth
to receive the bread of life. We share in the charity of Christ.
Even before I was an ordained deacon in the Episcopal Church, I had borne the body of Christ, this sacred bite, to hungry folks many times before. As the paten is an empty vessel to carry the spiritual meal, we who serve God in this meal or any food ministry are here as a vessel for God’s abundance.
Serving Holy Communion, the Eucharist, informs my notions of food ministry, and growing up in a Black Baptist church founded my understanding of ministering through food. Repasses after funerals,
breakfasts after Easter sunrise services, potlucks after big Sunday services — all were expressions of love to one another and foretastes of the Great
Banquet. We delighted in God’s abundance collectively, even if some did not have much individually. Leftovers in foil-tented plates may have helped a member, especially a “senior saint,” stretch the dwindling food stores until the next month’s check or charity. These communal meals were important ways to support one another and others beyond the church in accessing food.
CONNECTING CHURCH FOOD AND CHARITABLE FOOD
I could not have imagined that these early and sustained experiences with food in the church would inform my professional expertise. As an
agricultural economist, I found few ways to connect these ideas with my secular work until Martha Henk, executive director of the Food Bank of East Alabama, asked me to join the food bank board in Auburn. Serving on the board gave me new insights into the challenges of food insecurity locally and nationally. I worked with members representing vastly different aspects of society — business, ecclesial, governmental, and civil society leaders — to support the food bank and meet the needs of as many folks as possible. We were not naïve enough to think that the food bank’s work alone would eliminate food insecurity. I wonder, though, if the busyness had us so focused on the immediate need that we did not consider the larger issues faced by families in our community. Nevertheless, my participation on the board sparked a new focus of research and engagement.
Today, when I teach my Charitable Foods course at Duke Divinity, we push each other — instructor and learners — to think critically about the good work of giving food to people in need. We interrogate established institutions and individual actions with an eye toward constructive and practical ways to address the charity and justice gap in the emergency food sector (food banks, food pantries, soup kitchens, and the like).
Deeply embedded in many religious traditions is a call to care for the poor,
offering charity to those in need. That charity is frequently the work of
justice, addressing the misalignment of our ideals of a free society with the
everyday experiences of those in need. Further, many of us in the Christian
tradition feel compelled to serve the Lord unawares (see Hebrews 13:2)
by feeding the hungry, caring for the stranger, and visiting the prisoner.
Thus, a duty to serve is integral to the identity of the Christian. But those
involved in charity work must think through what we are doing and our
motivation for doing it.
When week after week, or month after month, we see the same people
cycling through our food pantry, or those individuals tend not to look
like our community, in whatever way defined, we should ask ourselves why
this is happening. Janet Poppendieck argues in her book Sweet Charity
that early creators of the charitable food sector saw it as emergency
relief. But what happens when the emergency is not temporary but is a
chronic problem? The food we are giving is not solving the root problem
that keeps certain folks returning. Is our notion of caring for people who
experience food insecurity too limited, meeting an immediate need at best?
Are we perpetuating an injustice?
Reducing the solution of food insecurity to financial or charitable transactions fails to acknowledge the complexity of the food system and the human and ecological systems that support it.
FOOD INSECURITY AS A JUSTICE ISSUE
The paradoxical solution to food insecurity in the U.S. is not food. Rather, families with concerns or limited access to food need financial resources and economic opportunities to provide for themselves. Consider two of the 10 statements that the U.S. government uses to evaluate food insecurity:
1. “(I/We) worried whether (my/our) food would run out before (I/we)
got money to buy more.”
2. “The food that (I/we) bought just didn’t last, and (I/we) didn’t have
money to get more.”
These statements focus on concerns about accessing food because of
financial resources and assert that food access would not be a problem
if people had enough money. Without a doubt, folks without financial
means cannot support their family’s food needs. Through economic
opportunities or social support, individuals can access resources to
Federally, we provide this social support through programs such as the
Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formally the Food
Stamp Program) and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program
for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). But is not our ability to feed
ourselves more than just our capacity to purchase foods? Our families,
social location, culture, and identity shape our foodways. Resources such
as time, health, and capacity are necessary to feed ourselves. Reducing
the solution of food insecurity to financial or charitable transactions
fails to acknowledge the complexity of the food system and the human
and ecological systems that support it. While from a technocratic viewpoint food insecurity can be considered a matter of inefficiency, fundamentally food insecurity and, more broadly, challenges in the food system are justice concerns. As a result, we need a food justice lens.
In Cultivating Food Justice, Alison Hope Alkon and Julian Agyeman
describe food justice as a broad construct that scholars and activists
use to describe an ideal food system. Some voices argue for food justice
where everyone can access the foods they need that are culturally relevant
and environmentally sustainable. Others point to exacerbating racial and class inequalities in the food system. Others demand a de-corporatization of the food system with an orientation toward local foods. While some long for agrarianism that supports small producers using traditional techniques, others believe that a technologically advanced and efficient food system will yield a sufficient food supply for the most people possible. The distinctions and categorizations suggested here are imperfect; we can find people who propose different assortments of these ideas (and others) to define what true food justice should be. The larger point is that there are different conceptions of food justice, and we need a well-informed public discussion of these ideas of justice for the food system.
In my research and teaching, I hope to engage students, faculty, community members, businesses, and policymakers in productive conversations to develop a fuller and better understanding of a just food system. Admittedly, some of these ideas of justice are in conflict. In reality, ideas of food justice highlight political and cultural perceptions of justice and rights on which we have not achieved consensus. Navigating these challenges means that a just food system, like food insecurity, is not simply about food. I am not the first to argue that food is political and also cultural. Conceptions of food and the food system reflect and refract our deepest values and ideals. Thus, we need multiple voices to have meaningful conversations on food in our society.
In reality, ideas of food justice highlight political and cultural perceptions of justice and rights on which we have not achieved consensus. Navigating
these challenges means that a just food system, like food insecurity, is not simply about food.
THEOLOGY AND FOOD JUSTICE AT DUKE
Working at Duke Divinity School has broadened my perspectives on food issues. At Duke Divinity, great colleagues like Norman Wirzba and Ellen Davis have thought critically about food in both society and Scripture. We also have amazing students who extend our conversations, especially those in the Food, Faith, and Environmental Justice certificate. Beyond the Divinity School, the engagement of the World Food Policy Center and the Sanford School of Public Policy, along with other units at Duke and throughout the Triangle region, create opportunities to see food and the food system more fully. We can move beyond discussion to create solutions to the injustices of the food system. Duke Divinity School is a wonderful place to participate in these efforts. What does this mean, however, for people beyond this place?
First, we must welcome the broader community into these conversations and seek the restoration of the food system through traditional and new modalities. Food is too big to discuss in an ivory tower alone. These conversations and solutions must have roots grounded in the reality of everyday life and needs. Thus, I hope that we can find ways to learn from each other and co-create knowledge. Second, I want to see the exchanges of ideas and praxis that I described earlier happen in settings beyond the academy. Third, I am concerned that our work and conversation about food systems frequently occur in silos with little exposure to larger and more diverse audiences. I would like to see conversations in houses of worship, businesses, community centers, and homes where people of differing views and life experiences begin to address food concerns and partner to take on problems in their local food system. Duke Divinity theology professor Luke Bretherton might provide insights into participating in these conversations and organizing in constructive and generative ways in his Listen, Organize, Act model.
THE GARDEN OF ABUNDANCE
Growing up, my parents always had a garden. I hated cutting okra. I remember the green hue of my fingers after shelling peas. Crookneck squash, which I thought was the only squash that existed, and tomatoes (for frying when green or eating directly once red) were abundant and flavorful. I always loved the collard, mustard, and turnip greens, a different trinity that this garden produced over the year and that my momma cooked to perfection. Even now, deep into their retirements, my parents maintain this garden. The mix of foods has changed, but staples are still there.
My parents have always shared the garden’s bounty with family and neighbors. The example of my parents and their garden, the take-out
meals after church repasses, and the morsel of the bread of Communion
are manifestations of the grace of the Holy Parent sharing creation’s wealth
with all of creation. Despite the real scarcity that we create, like food
insecurity, we have these experiences that show that abundance exists if
only we can see it, if only we remove obstacles so that all can share in this
abundance. The work for food justice that I hope occurs here at Duke
Divinity and in your community will move us to experience God’s grace.
As we taste and see this abundance, we will know that it is too good for
ourselves alone, and like my parents and their garden, we will share in the
abundance of truly just food.
THE WORLD FOOD POLICY CENTER AT DUKE
In addition to his role as professor of food, economics, and community at Duke Divinity School, Norbert Wilson is also the director of the World Food Policy Center with a secondary appointment in the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke. The mission of the World Food Policy Center is to advance connected and inclusive food system policy and practice in support of equity and resilience of local/national/global food systems. The work of education, research, and convening centers on root causes and narratives of racial inequity in the food system, the role of institutions in supporting community-led food justice, economic development through food justice, food systems analysis, and public health and nutrition. To facilitate innovative thinking and coordinated action to change policy and practice, the center bridges the worlds of academia, industry, philanthropy, nonprofits, governance, community, and culture.
As just one example of this work, in 2020 the World Food Policy Center at Duke University supported Share Our Strength’s No Kid Hungry campaign. Food insecurity in children is a tragic issue around the world, and in the U.S., the issue is especially challenging in rural areas. Rural faith communities often play a central role in addressing rural child hunger, and the support needs and desires of these organizations are nuanced by their faith tradition. The resulting report, Rural Child Hunger and Faith Community Engagement, was produced by lead author Emma Lietz Bilecky M.T.S.’19, research fellow at Princeton Theological Seminary’s Farminary Project; Norman Wirzba, Gilbert T. Rowe Distinguished Professor of Christian Theology and senior fellow at the Kenan Institute for Ethics; and Robb Webb, director of the Rural Church Division of The Duke Endowment and chair of the Rural Life Committee of the North Carolina Council of Churches. The report and a podcast episode with the authors is available.
A version of this article first appeared in the Fall 2022 issue of DIVINITY magazine, published by Duke Divinity School.