How can hunger exist in one of the richest nations in the world? How can communities struggle with both hunger and obesity at the same time?
Early in my pastorate at a downtown church in Chicago, we received weekly large donations of unsold, high-calorie, sugary pastries from the local grocery store. It was for our community meals ministry. But there was a surprising challenge from one of our leaders: “We should not just load up our guests plates with calories,” she said. “We need to think about peoples’ nutritional health, those with diabetes, and other dietary and health concerns.”
It was something I’d never thought of before, and it has inspired the way I think about food as a form of ministry since.
The Milk Mandate
Milk and dairy products are another example. Milk is subsidized up to 100% by the federal government. This may sound good for the poor and hungry. But many children’s nutritional needs have been ignored. About half of all Americans are lactose intolerant. It is estimated that more than 80% of Native Americans and African Americans are lactose intolerant. It may be the result of cultures who have never incorporated animal milk into their diet so their children do not have the capacity to digest it.
As pastor of a church with an elementary school that was over 90% Black American students, I remember how pleased we were to receive so many crates of milk for free. Little did we know that our ignorance of our students’ nutritional needs could exacerbate the health and hunger crisis in our community. Some see the subsidy of food which is more harmful to specific peoples as racially unjust.
This knowledge has led me and my family to eliminate dairy from our diet. It is an expensive choice. Plant-based milk is more expensive and is not subsidized by the government. Just a few weeks ago, I saw a large billboard in Times Square, New York, calling on Starbucks to stop charging extra for plant-based milk. I can afford to pay a little more. But what about those who do not have the same privilege?
New York Times author Dan Buettner wants us to learn from what he calls “the blue zones.” There are five: Okinawa, Japan; Sardinia, Italy; Nicoya, Costa Rica; Ikaria, Greece, and Loma Linda, California. These are areas of the world where people consistently live over 100 years old. They are not just living longer. They are eating, moving, breathing, and living healthier lives. These peoples have their own agricultural traditions, cultures, and resources that have been passed down from generation to generation.
As we reach out locally and globally to feed the poor, we can learn how different parts of the world have their own agricultural resources and traditions. Locally grown foods will often be more economical and do a far better job to eliminate hunger than the standard American diet.
God cares about our nutritional health. In the beginning, God said, “Let the earth sprout vegetation, plants yielding see, and fruit trees bearing fruit…” (Genesis 1:11 ESV). He created humanity in his own image and gifted us with food. And God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food” (Genesis 1:29). He cares about our bodies having the nutritional resources we need to grow, heal, have a healthy immune system, and to have the energy we need.
In the book of Daniel, the three Hebrew youths refused to eat meat sacrificed and wine consecrated to the Babylonian gods. Instead, they drank water and ate fruits and vegetables. After ten days they were visibly healthier than those who had the king’s diet (Dan 1:15). It may have also enhanced their mental acuity and intellect. They were deemed to be ten times wiser and more understanding than the others (Dan 1:20).
In the new creation, God will restore paradise to humanity. In the center of the New Jerusalem will be the Tree of Life and the River of Life for the “healing of the nations” (Rev 22:1-3). This seems to validate what Hippocrates (4th century BC) said: food is medicine. God has engineered healthy food to be the agent of healing for every human being on earth both now and into eternity.
What’s on your plate?
This knowledge of the healing properties of food and the nutritionally starved around us and around the world should call us to think more holistically about hunger. Even Thomas Edison said, “The doctor of the future will no longer treat the human frame with drugs, but will rather cure and prevent disease with nutrition.” Our soup kitchens and global food distribution should be mindful of nutrition—or the lack thereof. We should also be strategic in the kind of nutrition that certain communities need. Just like we have become more aware of gluten intolerance and peanut allergies and how harmful certain food can be to certain individuals, so we should avoid food that is known to be detrimental to certain communities of people.
The bottom line is that God cares about the hungry, the nutritionally starved, and those on the margins. We as God’s people should also care. Jesus taught us to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread.” The Reformer Martin Luther explains how God wants us to fulfill the 5th commandment, “You shall not murder”: “We should fear and love God so that we do not hurt or harm our neighbor in his body, but help and support him in every physical need.”
Our full consideration of an individual’s physical health, governmental, social, and nutritional needs send the message that we care for the hungry enough to learn about their particular needs. And then, who knows? Maybe a consciously curated meal will provide an opportunity to share about the Creator and Sustainer of the universe who profoundly cares for the hungry—body and soul.
Perhaps the saying is true: “The best way to a person’s heart is through their stomach.” Food can open our hands and hearts—but we all can do better in how we fill each other’s plates.