Regaining a Food Culture of ‘Thoughtful Eating’

Convenience is king. It may not be initially apparent, but that is because the art of convenience – being able to get what you want, when you want it, and as quickly as possible – has become so deeply embedded into the American psyche that it is hardly noticeable. With the rise of technology, the average American can now get their groceries and household necessities without ever stepping foot into a grocery store, much less coming within a thousand miles of where the food was physically grown. A few clicks, taps, and of course a Credit Card number, and “fresh” fruits and vegetables are brought out to your car at the local grocer or even delivered to your doorstop next to the morning paper. It’s in with the new – convenience, ease, and expediency – and out with the old – namely, any type of connectivity with the land. With this loss of connectivity to the land has gone any semblance of a genuine food culture. In turn, we have lost what Jennifer Ayers calls the process of “thoughtful eating.” Ayers defines thoughtful eating as the understanding that there is “no human fellowship without a table, no table without a kitchen, no kitchen without a garden, no garden without a viable ecosystem, no ecosystems without the forces productive of life, and no life without its sources to God” (Ayers, p. 59). Essentially, thoughtful eating is understanding that food does not just drop onto your plate out of thin air and instead arises from a complex web of occurrences from planting to transportation and many steps in-between (Ayers takes it all the way back to God). In this essay I will argue that the lack of connectivity to the land has directly led to a loss of thoughtful eating. First, I will examine Americans continued distancing from the land and how it has in turn created a lack of thoughtful eating, then move to the role education has played in creating this phenomenon, and conclude with theological emphases that can help reinvigorate a culture of thoughtful eating.

Americans are more distanced from their food than ever before both figuratively and literally. This, I argue, is the fundamental reason why thoughtful eating has gone to the wayside. In her chapter, “Called Home” in Animals, Vegetables, Miracle, Barbara Kingsolver lays out the hard facts: in the modern U.S. city “virtually every unit of food consumed there moves into town in a refrigerated module from somewhere far away,” the average food item on a grocery shelf “has traveled farther than most families go on their annual vacation,” and the water is “pumped from a non-renewable source – a fossil aquifer that is dropping so fast, sometimes the ground crumbles” (Kingsolver, pp. 3-5). Two of the most basic ingredients of sustaining human life – food and water – are increasingly being imported from afar rather than being grown or obtained locally. And although this process is often labeled as convenient, it cannot be deemed healthy for humans, animals, or the environment. Food insecurity and food deserts are rampant, workers of the land are treated poorly in their labor conditions and in their pay, the earth is given no time to rest, and animals are treated with no dignity. Michael Northcutt sums it up best when he says that this distancing from the land along with the increase of the global and industrial food economy has had direct effects on the way people eat and think about how they eat (Northcutt, p. 214).

With Northcutt’s statement in mind, I will now turn to how this distancing from the land has changed the way Americans eat. Food, which at its best can “provide powerful pathways for sharing and sustaining beliefs, and for passing on and retelling memories, narratives, and traditions” has been individualized to a great degree (Northcutt, pp. 214-215). A once communal, deeply involved act of growing, preparing, and eating has now been relegated to “pre-prepared and pre-packaged food from a factory or fast food outlet,” consumed often times alone (Northcutt, p. 223). Northcutt argues that this individualized eating is indicative of the growing global, industrial food economy. The process of making food has become delegated to professionals and more and more people have detached the process of making food from their daily routines. The question becomes apparent: how can someone develop a genuine love for food, its origins, and its effects on the land and animals, when they have no attachment to it whatsoever? Further, if thoughtful eating is the process of understanding where food comes from – starting with the table and going all the way back to God – how is it possible to retain this in a day-and-age dominated by pre-packaged, ready-made, fast food? The lack of connectivity to the land has created a food culture that does not think about the consequences of eating and instead emphasizes convenience.

Before any answers, we must quickly turn to the ways that education has enhanced this issue. Education, both secular and theological, is undoubtedly partially to blame for this problem. Education has moved from the realm of practicality to the realm of theory in most modern universities, in turn emphasizing the “presumption that education is a key to moving away from manual labor, and dirt” (Kingsolver, p. 9). Kingsolver notes that as more Americans walked away from the land (a product of the educational systems), our understanding of food production went with it (Kingsolver, p. 12). When defining the land and the jobs which are associated with it as lower and less important, food culture (in particular what Ayers calls “thoughtful eating”) disappears as well. This is because food culture arises “out of a place, a climate, a history, a temperament, a collective sense of belonging” and cannot be sold to people (Kingsolver, 17). If a love for the land dies, so too, will a desire to understand the processes in which the land produces. Theologically, there has been a lack of emphasis of humans as members of creation and on the Eucharist meal in many traditions (Ayers, pp. 71-72). Instead of membership, we have settled for dominion. Instead of meaningful Eucharist meals, we have turned to a superficial, ambiguous understanding of Eucharist as a token event done once in a while during Sunday services. As we turn to what ought to be happening, I argue that it must start with understanding humanity as a member in creation and Eucharist as “faithful feasting” (Northcutt, p. 266).

 Moving to the normative task, I argue that a reinvigoration of humans as members of creation is the one way to regain thoughtful eating. Ayers and Wendell Berry are both extremely important in developing this concept of membership. Ayers emphasizes that through Christ God has gifted us with a “radical gift of membership” that gives humans the “sacred obligation to continually seek, tend, and nurture the bonds of connectedness in God’s whole creation (Ayers, p. 71). Berry states that in order to live “we must daily break the body and shed the blood of Creation,” and when we do so with care, “it is a sacrament” (Ayers, pp. 69-70).  On the other hand, when done out of ignorance and greed, “it is a desecration” (Ayers, 69-70). To build off Ayers and Berry, if humanity sees itself as members of creation, the land and animals become brothers and sisters to us. The desire to take better care of the environment, to fight for animals’ rights, and to re-connect with the processes of food making will be invigorated. When properly oriented as a member (and not dominator) of creation, thoughtful eating becomes second nature (or perhaps it was natural all along).

Another way that theological education can help create thoughtful eating is through the sacrament of Eucharist. Although every scholar that I read on this topic approaches food culture in different ways, they each presented a renewed understanding of Eucharist as part of the solution. Fred Edie suggests that Eucharist is a key component in developing an ecological catechesis for Christians. Edie develops the idea of Eucharist as a “regular and discernibly robust ritual meal shared in community” but additionally a way to explore a “care for the land, sustainable agriculture, just practices of food distribution, and limited economies of sufficiency (Edie, pp. 10-11). Similarly, Northcutt suggests that there is “an urgent need to recover the full agrarian and social significance of Eucharist in Christian worship” (Northcutt, 224).  Northcutt believes that if Christians come to understand Eucharist as a truly holy meal of “faithful feasting” then all meals will become holy. If so, “all meals should be accompanied by prayerful recognition of the gifts of creation,” which, I argue, Ayers would understand as thoughtful eating (Northcutt, 266).

Christians should take seriously these recommendations for a multitude of reasons, but perhaps none more poignant than out of an understanding of the sovereignty of God. If Christians take seriously God as creator of the Heavens and the Earth and Jesus’ command to love thy neighbor (who can be seen as both the ground being tilled and the tiller), the desire to eat thoughtfully and live in membership with creation is a natural extension of those principles. As Edie points out, Christians have not done very well at this historically – specifically the ‘Christianized West’ which has “proven to be the most rapacious and least earth-friendly on the planet” (Edie, p. 1). Living sustainably does not mean living conveniently. Living sustainably does not mean living short-sightedly. Living sustainably means being thoughtful, humble, and aware of our effects on the world, and I argue that regaining a food culture of thoughtful eating is a great place to start. Theologically, through a better understanding of humans as members of creation and the Eucharist as a robust, communal, and fundamentally ecological meal, there will be a natural growing into a re-connection with the land and a more productive way of eating thoughtfully.

Sources (and for further reading)

Ayers, “Making Room at the Table” in Good Food

Berry, Anything.

Edie, “Ecological Catechesis for Holy Things” in Call to Worship

Kingsolver, “Called Home” in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

Northcutt, “Faithful Feasting” in A Moral Climate: The Ethics of Global Warming