Feeding Our Common Home

    On January 18th, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, along with Miriam’s Kitchen and Western Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C., announced EPA’s new Food Steward’s Pledge, an initiative engaging religious groups of all faiths to help combat our nation’s food waste. This pledge is a part of the agency’s larger Food Recovery plan to reduce food waste by 50 percent by 2030.
“We can make leaps and bounds in this process if we tackle this problem more systemically and bring a broader number of stakeholders to the table,” EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy tells [NPR]. By engaging religious communities, she says, “we are tapping into incredibly motivated and dedicated people.”
Food waste connects to the core values of many faith communities, particularly helping the poor and feeding the hungry, McCarthy notes.
As [NPR] reported, more than 1,200 calories per American per day are wasted, according to U.S. government figures. Loss occurs on the farm, at the retail level and in homes. We consumers often toss out foods because they’ve passed their sell-by date — but are still just fine to eat — or because we buy more than we can eat before it goes bad.”
     This issue of food waste is really complex, as it is just as much about psychology and behavior as it is about environmental degradation and uneven access. The majority of food discarded is considered inedible on the grounds that it is past expiration date or isn’t pleasing in aesthetic. Additionally, as consumers, we tend to purchase more than we can actually eat, leading to trashed leftovers, spoiled produce, and other wasted food that could have served another’s plate. All the food products that are trashed, the majority go right into landfills and while they decompose they release methane, accounting for a significant amount of greenhouse gas emissions.
     In an attempt to produce sufficient supply for this excessive demand, which again is fueled by our conceptions of what is “good” and what we “need”, farmers are incentives to grow mass quantities of crops, some of which never make it to market. It’s not only that markets want certain quantities, but they also want food products that look beautiful on their shelves (a certain “grade”, in industry speak). There’s also the issue of who is accessing those shelves – is it a certain cohort of a certain socioeconomic status? A certain ethnicity? A certain belief system? The barriers are plenty, just as the food – the issue is how do we take down those barriers to increase efficiency, expand access, and imbue a sense of intentionality and a posture of gratitude in the way we grow, purchase, share, and consume our food.
     This is, I think, why the EPA has explicitly set out in collaboration with the faith community. It is not just the characteristics of being motivated and dedicated – it’s the perspective. At the core of many faith traditions is the belief that God blessed us with the gift of the earth, not for us to control but for us to steward – the notion of creation care. We see beauty and potential in a seed; connection and handwork in the harvest; loving effort in cooking; and thanksgiving and praise in sitting around a table with our neighbors – brothers and sisters from all walks of life. In our modern food system, though, we also see disaccord, devastation, and injustice in the fact that the seats at the table are unevenly accessed, and that the food on those plates is not only indicative of the bounty God has blessed us with, but the enormous waste that has not reached the plates of others as a result of a culture of excess and convenience.
     Just as the issue of food waste is complex, so are the answers. Thus, systems thinking – looking at the ways individual stakeholders come together and interact within a wider network, enables a greater perspective to be taken – one that sees more value in the collective than the individual. By engaging government entities, faith groups, outreach and aid organizations, businesses, farms, consumers, and the many others involved in our food system – which, by the way, is everyone, we enable the solutions that arise from these collaborations to be better informed, and, hopefully, more effective.
     During the ReGenerate Fellowship, a Wake Forest Divinity program on religious leadership and ecological vocation, global climate science reporter Justin Catanoso spoke to us about his work exploring the reception of Laudato Si in Peru, and the negotiations at Paris COP 21. After sharing stories of why this work of environmental activism is so vital especially now, as he saw during trips with tropical biologists to the southern Amazon, he stressed, “this is the faith community’s time.” Pope Francis’ encyclical has brought world wide attention to the interconnections of science, politics, environment, and religion. Thus, the perspectives of the world are opening up to the sobering truth that we really must work together – all of us at the table.
     This explicit partnership between the EPA and faith community gives me much hope that we can work together to truly feed the hungry and lift up the poor.

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