Susan Maas

“Have another,” urges Sister Mary Tacheny, passing a plate of buttery, made-from-scratch cookies. She nibbles her own slowly and with obvious pleasure. A School Sister of Notre Dame, Sister Tacheny is serving the cookies with organic, hormone-free milk from Cedar Summit farm and creamery, just a few miles down the road in New Prague, Minn. The sweet milk, with its cream risen to the necks of old-fashioned glass bottles, comes from grass-fed cows on the Minar family farm.

 

Is this petite, grandmotherly nun a food snob? Not at all. She is just abundantly aware of food as a moral issue. Because of this, she can enjoy eating more fully, knowing that her food arrived on the table with minimal harm to the land, animals or other human beings. When she says, “I believe we are what we eat,” Sister Tacheny is talking about more than getting enough vitamins and minerals. She is talking about whether or not we are also ingesting unnecessary hormones or antibiotics, or degradation of animals and the land, or the decay of rural communities or the economic exploitation of growers and farmworkers. A longtime advocate of sustainable farming, she believes that pure food—grown with reverence for all of creation—is not just good for the body, but that it also nourishes the soul.

Increasingly, many farmers are taking the environmental movement to task for what they see as its historical neglect of food and farming as central environmental issues. Similarly, some agricultural and religious leaders see churches as having fallen short in addressing food and its production as a spiritual issue. Activists and food lovers like Tacheny are hungry to help change that. “Eating is a moral act,” proclaims the Iowa-based Catholic Rural Life Conference.

Disconnected From Food, Disconnected From God

In Food for Life: The Spirituality and Ethics of Eating, published in 2004, the Lutheran theologian L. Shannon Jung argues that Westerners’ lack of connection with the origins of our food causes us to be disconnected from God as well. Industrialized agriculture gives us easy access to cheap food, but we are losing much in the bargain: biodiversity, clean water and clean air, rich rural communities. Our reductionist approach to food, Jung says, is an affront to the interconnectedness of creation. “Food is too routine, too easy, too cheap, too available for us to note what it represents and offers.... We have lost sight of God’s greatest blessings—the earth and other humans, both of which nurture us.”

The Rev. Wanda Copeland, rector at Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Elk River, Minn., and chair of the Episcopal Ecological Network, puts it even more strongly. “Bit by bit, we’re pulling apart the fabric of creation. We take the water, the air, the land and our food, and we say, ‘Let somebody else take responsibility for this,’” Copeland says. “We ignore the fact that our food is processed in packing houses where underpaid migrant workers get their fingers cut off.... We’re so busy with other things that seem important. It’s all about how we honor our Creator.”

Sister Tacheny is a founding member of the Center for Earth Spirituality in Mankato, Minn., and has served as its co-director. The center, which includes a native prairie and chemical-free gardens where some 70 immigrant families grow their own food, is an instrument the School Sisters of Notre Dame use for teaching and living the concept of sustainability. The sisters created the center because “we were concerned with what was happening to the earth, to farmers, and to food,” she says. Their misgivings about the effects of large-scale industrialized agriculture on people and nature is rooted in Scripture and the belief that creation has inherent value beyond its usefulness to human beings.

“The Scriptures tell us that the earth is the Lord’s, and it was given to us as a gift,” she explains. “We were to take care of it so future generations could also enjoy it; it wasn’t just meant for us or for any one generation.”

Fred Kirschenmann, a farmer who is also a minister of the United Church of Christ and executive director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University, faults a flawed interpretation of God’s gift of dominion over the earth and its creatures for our mechanistic approach to the land and agriculture. “The ‘dominion’ notion [really means] that we are servants on behalf of the Creator, charged with caring for the Earth,” he says. “Aldo Leopold talked about the ‘ecological conscience.’ He meant that we humans are part of a rich, diverse biotic community. We are part of God’s creation, and we have to be thoughtful and see ourselves as a player along with others, not approach the land [as] a conqueror.”

Many farmers, like the Minars, have found another way: using non-chemically intensive methods to grow a diverse and rotating array of crops, raising livestock without nontherapeutic antibiotics or growth hormones and selling the fruits of their labors locally. But at $5.79 per gallon, the Minars’ milk is more expensive; and when the average American family is accustomed to spending just 11 percent of its income on food, that limits the consumer base significantly.

Two-Tiered Food System

Sister Tacheny struggles with what some activists have called our two-tiered food system: millions of Americans simply cannot afford to join Community Supported Agriculture farms or shop at food co-ops, and the food served at homeless shelters or distributed at food pantries is not likely to be organic or locally grown. “The person who is truly hungry needs food, period,” Tacheny says. “But I would hope that as we create meals, we have some awareness about food quality. It may not come from a food co-op, but at least if we are serving, say, hamburger, it is not the cheapest you can possibly get.” She adds: “If we’re going to support farmers who are trying to be good stewards of the land and earn a living, we’re going to pay more for the food. Farmers are very aware of that, and it worries them.”

But cheap food is not inexpensive for the land, air and water, or for rural communities that depend on food production. And a growing body of evidence suggests that the bottom-line approach to farming, in addition to having major environmental effects, is also partly responsible for problems like antibiotic resistance in animals and humans, as well as costly health crises like mad cow and hoof-and-mouth disease.

Sister Tacheny hopes that as more consumers seek locally, sustainably produced food, they will demand that the government stop heavily subsidizing industrial agriculture. This could level the field, and prices, somewhat. Today farmers are caught in a vicious cycle: as monocultural agribusiness has led to higher yields, prices have fallen, making farming an unaffordable proposition for those without the means or inclination to produce commodities on a large scale.

And the farmers’ share of food income has shrunk while those in other areas of agribusiness—processing, distribution and marketing—have prospered. In 1950 farmers recieved 50 cents of every retail food dollar; now they receive under 20 cents. Over the past two decades, a few taxpayer-supported agribusiness firms have exploited lax antitrust enforcement to consolidate their grip on all aspects of food production and distribution. Since 1950, average farm size has doubled while the number of farms has decreased by well over 60 percent, and that number is dwindling all the time.

“That’s why the advocacy has to continue, to change public policy. The Minars don’t get any subsidies. They’re at a disadvantage,” Sister Tacheny says, and so are their customers. “People on the land need to be able to make a decent living while they take care of it. Americans aren’t very good at paying the true cost of food. They want to spend that money on all the other things.”

Kirschenmann talks about a new way, beyond tallying the ecological and social costs of industrialized agriculture of evaluating food prices. “We have to start looking at the whole notion of nutrient density: What kind of nutrients are you getting for this price?” Fresh is best. Supermarket tomatoes that have traveled across the country have less to offer, both nutritionally and in taste, than the just-picked heirloom varieties at the farmers’ market. He believes there is a role for churches in questioning U.S. agricultural policy, in asking whether this is a fair and just system. He asks:“Why, for example, shouldn’t churches get involved in the debate about school lunches? The health of children is certainly a faith issue. If Jesus emphasized anything, it was care for children and the poor.”

Churches Called to Act

Communities of faith can chew on these issues together, Kirschenmann observes. He points to a specific example of churches making a difference: His colleague Rich Pirog, a researcher at the Leopold Center, is a longtime proponent of grape production in Iowa. “Rich came up with the idea that the wine and grape juice in local churches should come from grapes grown by local farmers,” Kirschenmann says. Such connections allow churches to “celebrate the sense of the church as part of the community.”

Some congregations are putting their money where their mouths are, supporting local farmers by buying shares of C.S.A. farms for use by parishioners and for sharing with those in need in the wider community. Members can deepen their connection to the farm and to one another by volunteering to help plant, weed and harvest. Some congregations are creating cookbooks of recipes that use seasonal, local foods.

Churches can host local foods banquets: sharing meals prepared with these local, seasonal, sustainably grown foods. Copeland helped organize such a meal when the Episcopal national convention came to Minneapolis in 2003. The event proved “very powerful,” Copeland said. “I repeatedly heard delegates say that it was the best meal of the convention—and there are a lot of good restaurants in Minneapolis. So often mealtime ends up being a hollow, rote thing, when it should be a ritualistic, meaning-filled event in our lives.” That dinner was catered by chefs from a Minneapolis cafe, but a local foods supper can be as simple as a potluck featuring ingredients from parishioners’ gardens or local farms.

Beyond those tangible actions, churches can provide moral leadership, through preaching, through legislative advocacy, through writing, marching and speaking up on behalf of family-sized farms. Sister Tacheny sees slow but definite progress, one altar, one table at a time.

Susan Maas is a freelance writer and editor in Minneapolis, Minn.