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Food justice

(Photo credit: Cal Corps/ UC Berkeley)

By Alan Wisdom (@AFHWisdom)

“We live in a world where there is enough food for all,” declared Sara Lisherness, Director of Compassion, Peace, and Justice Ministries in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Opening an April 5 conference sponsored by the PCUSA in conjunction with the inter-denominational Ecumenical Advocacy Days, Lisherness urged her audience to ask, “Why are people hungry?”

Answers to that question came from the podium throughout the daylong conference at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, DC. Blame fell principally on “corporations trying to take advantage of people,” in the words of one speaker. The assumption seemed to be that the natural state of humankind was subsistence farmers enjoying abundant fresh food, and that hunger entered the picture only when modern multinational corporations bought up land to mass-produce cash crops for shipment to suburban U.S. supermarkets. Several speakers at the “Food Justice” conference lamented the damages wrought by free trade agreements.

None of the speakers heard by this reporter reflected on the fact that scarce resources and the threat of hunger have been the norm through most of human history. Scarcity—and the need to choose among competing goods in allocating resources—remains the first lesson of economics. Scripture does indeed depict the abundance of the Garden as God’s original intention for humankind; however, then comes the Fall and the hardships that still afflict us:

…cursed is the ground because of you;

in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life;

thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;

and you shall eat the plants of the field.

By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread

until you return to the ground…. (Genesis 3:17b-19a)

None of the speakers took note of the recent progress humankind has made in the struggle to feed itself. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reports that since 1990 the number of undernourished persons in the world has dropped, even as population has continued to rise. Over the last 20 years the percentage experiencing hunger has declined steadily, from 19 percent to 12 percent. Perhaps the question setting the agenda at the PCUSA conference should not have been “Why are people hungry?” but instead “Why do so many formerly hungry people now have enough food?”

It appears that the major factor driving hunger down worldwide has been economic growth associated with free markets and free trade. The FAO indicates that “strong economic growth will be an essential component for successful and sustainable hunger reduction. Indeed, regions that have grown more rapidly have generally witnessed more rapid reductions in hunger; throughout the world, people with more income have greater dietary diversity.” These regions with rapid reductions in hunger—East Asia and Latin America especially—are the ones most closely integrated into the global economy, where multinational corporations are investing most heavily. Yet none of these striking trends figured in the presentations at the “Food Justice” conference.

After the greeting from Lisherness, an opening sermon was delivered by the Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson II, Director of the PCUSA Office of Public Witness. Nelson began by noting that more than 200 Presbyterian activists were registered for that weekend’s Ecumenical Advocacy Days—more than twice the number from any other participating denomination. That turnout “says something about our denomination being on fire for advocacy work,” he exclaimed.

Nelson drew political inspiration from his text: Luke 14:12-24, the parable in which Jesus tells of a banquet host who, angered by rejections from his original invitees, sends his servant out into the streets to “bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.” The PCUSA lobbyist read the parable as a mandate for redistribution of wealth and power: “There is a paradigm shift in this text that calls in a sense for the elite to be excluded, or have excluded themselves, and for the poor to be able to enter in.”

Nelson suggested that the PCUSA today was going through a similar paradigm shift, as it and other formerly “mainline” denominations were losing the social status of which they had once boasted. “Have we forgotten what our real mission in the world is?” he asked. “This is what the real church is called to do, to be in relationship beyond the boundaries of sin, beyond the boundaries of our own kind….” According to Nelson, Presbyterians were being called to “sit at table with those who have been pushed away. This, my friends, is the mission of the Church.”

The preacher challenged the PCUSA’s program that aims to “give birth to 1,001 new worshiping communities” in the next decade. “I’m all for 1,001 congregations for the glory of God, but for what?” he thundered. “A thousand and one for what? To shake up the world, to turn it upside down, or just to be in church and talk about God?”

Yet Nelson was encouraged by other developments in the denomination. He cited relief efforts in the wake of hurricanes in New Orleans and New York, and after the shootings in Newtown, CT, as examples that “can tell the story of what our church has done.” The Public Witness director hailed various PCUSA advocacy agencies that “got together and put enough pressure on our leadership” to boycott the Hyatt Hotel in Louisville over its labor relations policies. He proclaimed, “That’s the kind of work that transforms, that’s the kind of work that breaks bonds, that brings communities together, that lifts people up in different ways.” Nelson was heartened to see the PCUSA “begin to work on the issues that matter to people.”

Similar themes were sounded in a luncheon address by Pentecostal Bishop Don Dixon Williams. Bishop Williams, who directs African American Church Relations for the advocacy group Bread for the World, informed the gathered Presbyterian activists that “politics is extremely important” and “advocacy is extremely important.” Claiming that 50 million people in United States are “food insecure,” he called hunger an “important” issue, but not “one of those sexy issues.”

Williams regretted the current political climate in Washington: “We’re in what I call a defensive mode right now, because of sequestration, because we’re talking about deficit reduction. Everybody has a tendency to want to take the money from places that we can least afford to have people taking money.” The bishop named food stamps and the Women, Infants, and Children nutrition program as examples of expenditures that he was seeking to protect from budget cuts.

An audience member asked Williams why “so many churches are so afraid of getting involved” politically. The Bread for the World official responded: “The whole problem, in my estimation, around this issue of hunger is greed. I’m mean, that’s a spiritual problem, when you have corporations trying to take advantage of people.”

A panel at the conference discussed how people can “resist this model of a food system that is just absurd” by growing vegetables in community gardens. Another presentation [insert link to article] challenged secret deals that multinational corporations strike with Third World governments for large-scale agricultural and extractive projects, at cost to the environment and indigenous cultures. Two speakers [insert link to article] hailed a church-backed farm workers’ union in Florida that had won concessions from tomato growers, grocery stores, and fast food chains. A workshop [insert link to article] on U.S. tax policy showed both presenters and participants eager to impose higher taxes on the wealthy. Attendees at a workshop [insert link to article] on “Discerning Peace” were critical of the “military-industrial complex” and its share of the federal budget.