Food insecurity in one of the world’s richest and most productive nations is a reality and constitutes a social injustice that many Americans are working to eradicate. Those seeking to assist come from all sectors, with their efforts taking many different forms and occurring in communities throughout the country. In brief, according to Guptill, Copelton and Lucal (2013), there are three categories of food security/anti-hunger programs in the United States. Entitlement programs, such as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Women Infants and Children; emergency efforts, including food banks, soup kitchens and food pantries; and empowerment programs, those that involve the food insecure in the sustainable food system change they require. Each of these merits brief consideration.
Despite the positive and altruistic intentions of much food security work, some researchers and practitioners have suggested that many such practices are not providing a sufficiently radical or sustainable approach to food system change (Allen, 1999; Poppendieck, 1998). One approach, for example, that at first glance appears to be operating effectively, is emergency food provision. When viewed longitudinally it is clear that many food aid institutions began during a recession or a particularly difficult economic time, and were not designed to exist forever (Poppendieck, 1998). Nonetheless, the emergency food system has grown enormously since its inception in the early 1900s (Allen, 1999) and several analysts have argued that dependence on such assistance works against household and community self-reliance, as well as the development of sustainable systemic solutions to food insecurity (Allen, 2004; Pothukuchi, 2007). Faith communities have been a part of this now institutionalized emergency food aid structure since its beginnings, and the federal government has often encouraged their efforts, as demonstrated by the George W. Bush administration’s creation of the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, as well as his abolition of some federal barriers to civil society organization action to address hunger (The White House, N.D.).
Food security advocates promote a comprehensive approach to food insecurity that creates, “a situation in which all community residents obtain a safe, culturally acceptable, nutritionally adequate diet through a sustainable food system that maximizes community self-reliance and social justice” (Hamm & Bellows, 2003, p. 37). This definition outlines the concept of community food security, a frame gaining salience among those seeking more systemic change. This essay argues that faith communities possess untapped capital that could permit them to move beyond emergency food provision and toward more community food security-oriented programs, and that such a step would accord with their values and beliefs.
Faith-based social programs can serve a sacramental function for those who view such efforts as a ministry and symbolic response to a divine command (Harden, 2006). In the United States, hunger relief efforts are generally perceived to be the province of Christian denominations, but providing such support is integral to numerous faith traditions. Judaism, for example, enjoins its faithful to heal the world through righteous acts of charity and justice (Bielefeld & Cleveland, 2013). Meanwhile, the Quran encourages Muslims to serve humanitarian values of justice, fairness, responsibility and accountability (Yaghi, 2009). Mohandas Gandhi, a Hindu leader, embraced humanitarian work as an example of his faith tradition as well. In addition to its connection to faith and service, food also plays roles in worship practices and celebrations for many religions; feasting, fasting and communion in the Christian church are examples (Mann & Lawrence, 1998).
Empowerment programs aim explicitly to address the conditions that result in hunger in the first instance. These initiatives typically embrace a community development approach and seek to assist those who are food insecure by helping them obtain health care, job training and/or work experience that will aid their ability to ensure against future periods of hunger (Guptill, Copelton, & Lucal, 2013). Empowerment program proponents do not dismiss the need for a functional emergency safety net, but contend that such assistance can become dangerous if too often viewed as the lone resource available (Guptill, Copelton, & Lucal, 2013; Poppendieck, 1998). Rather, a combination of approaches could lead to greater community food security (Allen, 1999).
Given the challenges the nation now confronts in making effective, equitable and sustainable food systems a reality, faith communities represent an enormous reservoir of capacity to contribute to community food security in the United States. Aside from being present in almost every jurisdiction in the country, faith communities typically have a number of other assets including a building, green space, kitchen facilities, a volunteer-base, and common goals (Rosenberger, Richards, Nevin Gifford, & Gossen, 2006; Schneider, 2012). Congregations can be developed and nurtured to create social capital that can contribute directly to encouraging greater community food security in the populations they serve. Many faith communities need support, however, in helping them determine how they might aid in this way. Proponents can point to many examples of church actions to assist the hungry. Some congregations host farmers markets in their parking lots, others support produce buying clubs for their members while still others provide space for community gardens on their sites or provide cooking lessons or transportation to grocery stores for those who require these services. There is a virtually endless list of ways faith communities can take part in efforts to reduce food insecurity that do not rely on charity, but doing so first requires that congregations understand that emergency programs, as necessary as they are, will not lead to the empowerment of those they serve. Indeed, a shared interfaith creed of justice necessitates a move away from continued support primarily of emergency programs and toward increased aid for empowerment oriented initiatives.
In fact, a number of United States faith-based organizations are now engaged in strong efforts to educate the public concerning food issues and identifying ways that the nation may build a more just food system. For example, the Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon offers a Food and Farms Program that aims to empower communities to build just and sustainable food systems (Furbush, 2008). This collaborative brings together congregations and civic groups to launch grassroots projects including produce buying clubs, food and wellness assessments, community gardens and policy and advocacy work. Come to the Table, located in North Carolina, works with congregations to devise strategies that turn their own and community assets into usable capital by convening annual conferences, which provide networking opportunities for church members, farmers, community development professionals and policy makers to share food system related challenges and to exchange ideas concerning how to address them (Hermann, Lin-Beers and Beach, n.d.). The Baltimore Food & Faith Project in Baltimore, Maryland and Shalom Farms, in Richmond Virginia, are examples of faith-based organizations now seeking to provide empowerment programs to alleviate long-term food insecurity in targeted populations while also ensuring that none go hungry in the near term.
The marriage of food and faith has long resulted in an outpouring of emergency support during periods of economic hardship and widespread hunger. However, these initiatives do not build food security among those they assist. Doubtless, faith communities will continue to offer temporary assistance programs to ensure that people are fed, but reducing or even eliminating institutional emergency food and replacing it with programs that address the sources of the food insecurity of those served should be the ultimate goal of these congregations. People of faith are obliged by their beliefs to feed the hungry, but they also wish to take actions that result in improved opportunities for justice for those whom they assist. There is no single prescription for how the latter may be achieved, but I see vibrant, active churches and faith-based organizations offering food programming that builds equity, dignity, sustainability and community as a long-term response to the imperatives of their faith traditions and the needs of individuals in the communities they serve.
Allen, P. (1999). Reweaving the food security safety net: Mediating entitlement and entrepreneurship. Agriculture and Human Values, 16(2), 117-129.
Allen, P. (2004). Together at the table: sustainability and sustenance in the American agrifood system. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press.
Furbush, J. (2008). Everyone eats!: A community food assessment for areas of north and northeast Portland. Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon’s Interfaith Network for Earth Concerns: Interfaith Food and Farms Partnership. Retrieved October 12, 2013 from: http://www.emoregon.org/pdfs/IFFP/IFFP_NNE_Portland_Food_ Assessment _full_report.pdf
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Hermann C., Liu-Beers C., & Beach L. How people of faith can relieve hunger and sustain local farms in North Carolina. Rural Advancement Foundation International-USA. Retrieved October 12, 2013 from: http://www.slideshare.net/rafiusa/come-to-the-table-guidebook
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Rosenberger, N., Richards, L., Nevin Gifford, L., Gossen, K. From our own soil: A community food assessment Benton County, Oregon, and its foodshed. 2006. USDA Community Foods Project Grant.
Schneider, J. A. (2012). Comparing stewardship across faith-based organizations. Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, 42(3), 517-539.
The White House, (n.d.). “Faith-Based and Community Organizations.” Accessed August 7, 2014. http://georgewbushwhitehouse.archives.gov/news/reports/faithbased.html.
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Rebecca Landis is a Master’s student in the Department of Agricultural, Leadership, and Community Education at Virginia Tech. She is interested in the connections among faith, food and social justice. Her research focuses on community food work as a critique of the industrial agri-food system, and the role of critical reflection in imbuing values from alternative food discourses into practitioner’s work. Before coming to Virginia Tech, Rebecca received her Bachelor’s degree in Conservation Biology from the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry and spent time working on a farm in Washington State. When not ruminating on her place in dismantling social injustice, Rebecca likes to spend time outside with her fiancé and dog, and marvel at the wonderful creation human beings were given to steward.