by Stephanie Dunk
Sophia is the Greek word for Wisdom, and Propel Sophia seeks out the voices of truly wise women and asks them to share worked examples of how they express faith in daily life. Pull up a chair at Sophia’s table, won’t you? There’s plenty of space. Learn more here.
The four of us are huddled around our tiny table.
‘Heavenly Father, thank-you-for-this-day-and-thank-you-for-this-food-amen.’ The prayer is all in one breath from the mouth of our six year old.
Our three year old tries to keep up, but it’s just a running mumble until the emphatic ‘AMEN’.
Then we all eat, piling our forks high with rice, chickpeas in miso mayonnaise, chopped carrot and cucumber, tofu in soy sauce, grated zucchini and sauerkraut. It is one of our favourite meals. We call it ‘a bowl’, and it varies with the seasons, our taste, or what we have in the pantry.
This scene of domestic bliss seems complete. But it is not the full story. We couldn’t eat any of these things if we were relying on our own hands.
When my husband and I were first married, we left our wedding gifts still unwrapped and set out for our first supermarket trip. We bought the cheapest cans of lentils, tomatoes and chickpeas. Arriving home, we realised that these cheap cans didn’t have ring pulls. The next day we went out to buy a can opener. We got the most expensive one. We had a sense that buying high quality things would save us in the long run.
During our environmental turn (brought on by reading Wendell Berry while travelling through Europe), this conviction deepened. Buy fewer, better. This was quite pleasant while travelling. I got a woollen dress from the Liberty shop in London. A silk shirt from Aubin & Wills in Edinburgh. It felt like a small win against the system. Buy what you need. Buy once. Buy to last. Then be content with what you have. It’s a different kind of frugality, one that works over the long term, on a cost-per-wear basis.
But this kind of buying does not apply to food. It will be eaten today or thrown out tomorrow no matter how much you paid for it. So is eating the cheapest possible food from the most expensive tableware the answer? Opening the cheapest cans using the most expensive can opener?
As I have eaten my way through two pregnancies, and half a PhD on food ethics and local economies, our household has decided that the answer to this is ‘no’; there is something lasting in the way that our food is produced, even once the food has returned to the earth. These have been gradual changes in our thinking – eating is not something you can suspend while you resolve your ethical questions. We cannot buy food second hand or fast until something appears on the market that ticks all our boxes.
The changes we have made have been influenced by our creation theology, that is, the vision we see in Genesis of agricultural wonder, with Adam and Eve in Genesis 2 as producers in God’s garden.
Changes came too, during a year living with housemates whose knowledge, example, and gentle questions enlivened our consciences. And through God’s heart for the poor (Psalm 82:3), along with the stomach-turning realisation that each mouthful I eat may have meant hours of someone’s back-breaking labour.
As our awareness of agriculture’s role in accelerating climate change has grown, we have become more convinced that we can’t just do as we please with the resources God has entrusted to us. After all, God didn’t just instruct Adam to eat of the garden, but also ‘to work it and take care of it’ (Genesis 2:15). We have increasingly recognised our privilege, and our desire is to give over the power that we do have and for God to use it for good.
Eating food is an intimate, bodily thing. We place the rice in our mouths, we feel the strands of sauerkraut on our tongues. We take food into ourselves and it becomes part of us. We eat as a family, and a meal gives us time to face each other. Whether or not we realise it, food connects us to the earth, to the hands and lives of those we will never meet. Economically, consuming food is a simple, personal activity, yet it also pulls us into relations within economic, social and environmental structures. Becoming conscious of the bigger picture enables us to use our purchasing power to enact the kinds of relations we want to see in the world.
Beyond just connecting us with others in the world, food connects us with the absolute. Our three year old’s mumbled thanks expresses our ultimate dependence on God. It can seem like a personal, direct gift, but of course God mostly provides sustenance through these systems, through the world. So we try to play our part in these systems with love. We prioritise buying produce from a local food distributor that pays farmers a fair wage. We don’t eat meat at home, preferring nutrients from less resource intensive and less polluting sources. We minimise our food waste and compost what we cannot use up in soups and curries. We keep researching and talking together and changing our practices, encouraging each other to do as much as we can, while knowing that we will never do it perfectly.
As we eat our ‘bowl’, we participate in the basic biological reality laid out by the Creator. We take the opportunity to participate consciously, gratefully, in the material outworking of God’s will, which is the world, in all its interwoven splendour.
Stephanie Dunk’s PhD research is on food ethics. She is Chief of Operations at Anglican Deaconess Ministries.