Interview

Mindful Eating: Changing Congregational Food Practices

Q & A with Noah Campbell

by Sarah Ranson

Noah Campbell is the executive director of the Memphis Center for Food and Faith (MCFF). The Center, part theological institute and part community development ministry, asks the simple question: Are we loving God and our neighbor with our food choices? Church Health Reader spoke with Noah about the Center’s work in engaging Memphis clergy and congregations in developing mindful eating practices and religious curiosity about the manner in which our food is grown, raised, harvested, butchered, transported, marketed, and consumed.

Sarah Ranson: Why is food a theological concern?

Noah Campbell: Food is cultivated by farmers, ranchers, and gardeners, but food is foremost a gift of creation. Food connects us to creation. Every meal is an Earth Day event. Food connects us to people: farmers, laborers, and artisans. Every meal is a fellowship. Food connects us to non-human creatures, large and small. We honor or dishonor them with our food choices. To eat and to drink is to enter into more than an economic or biologic reality. Food has social, moral, and spiritual dimensions. Thus, food is a theological concern.

How does the Memphis Center for Food and Faith engage people of faith with these issues?

Our vision is to connect congregational food practices to ministries of creation care and community renewal. Some greater Memphis congregations have made this connection. Many have not. Using a biblical and theological curriculum, we facilitate workshops and seminars to highlight the connection between food, faith, and mindful eating. We hope to see Memphis congregations more fully engaged in the development of a community-based food economy, supporting local farmers practicing agricultural sustainability while also addressing food justice issues in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods. We’re also exploring the idea of a food hub, which stores, markets, and distributes local foods. It’s a way to connect small-scale and urban farmers to congregations and households.

What challenges do you face in this work?

Beyond successfully making the case for the connection between food and faith, our principal challenges are logistics and economics. For example, if a congregation is inspired to buy vegetables for its midweek fellowship meal from local farms, the congregation will likely face new logistic hurdles. Also, although the social and economic benefits from local procurement provide incentives, stretching a food dollar is a huge challenge for congregations, especially when the food dollar is dedicated to ministries of relief, like a food pantry. Different congregations, just like households, have varying degrees of what’s called “eating power,” which is the relative capacity to send clear signals into the food economy by our consumer choices. To provide a means for all congregations to exercise eating power, the local food economy must be safe, dependable, and relatively affordable. We believe such an economy for Memphis as well as other cities is possible, but the structures that make it feasible take time to develop.

If a typical family is ready to change their eating and cooking habits, where would you suggest they start?

I think developing a set of guidelines is helpful, so long as the family commits to keep a proper balance of expectations. Eating in a mindful, faithful way is not easy, especially when budgets and schedules are tight. My wife, Allyson, and I have developed a basic framework for our food decision- making. As much as we are able, we’ll buy local— community-supported agricultures (CSAs), farm markets, “cow-shares,” and things like that.When we can’t buy from local or regional farms, we’ll aim to buy responsibly. “Fair trade” coffee, for example. As guests, we’ll always be grateful for gifts of hospitality, shared bread, and friendship. And when invited to a restaurant for professional or social reasons, if circumstances permit, we’ll recommend restaurants locally owned, with at least Project Green Fork certification, and preferably a restaurant mindful of food origin.

In your seminars you use the book Making Peace with the Land by Fred Bahnson and Norman Wirzba. What would it mean to “make peace with the land?”

Many things contribute to reconciliation with creation, including the generation and use of energy, but mindful eating is indispensable. As Wendell Berry has put it, “Eating is an agricultural act,” and by that I don’t think he means agriculture merely as farming practices. I believe he means agriculture in its fullest ecological and social reality. To eat is to make peace or war with the land.

What would you say to a pastor or individual who is interested in exploring food and faith in a deeper way?

If they’re in Memphis or nearby, let the Center for Food and Faith help! Ministries with similar aims exist through the US. For example, in North Carolina, the Rural Advancement Foundation International- USA sponsors the Come to the Table Initiative. Anyone can call or email the Center for more information or help.

What is your family’s favorite meal?

We have children, so homemade pizza surely tops the list.

 

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