Applying Quaker Thought to Food

Many of the world’s faiths and religious organizations make faith-based eating easy for their believers: Don’t eat pork. Don’t eat any animal flesh at all. Eat fish on Fridays. Avoid garlic. Skip coffee. Abstain from alcohol. Wine and bread are meaningful. Fast between dawn and sunset on these days. Don’t eat leavened foods on those days. No bacon cheeseburgers ever. But applying Quaker testimonies to food and food choices, I’ve found, is not as easy.

Being a Friend means my faith-based food choices are largely left to how I sense the Spirit speaking in my life. By profession, I’m a writer and editor who specializes in diet and food. It’s my job to eat. That, combined with the goal of faith-guided eating, poses potential problems. For example, does the Testimony of Simplicity mean that I should reject Julia Child’s famous yet very precise tenpage recipe for French bread in favor of the ease of using a no-knead recipe or a bread machine? Does simplicity mean that I shouldn’t join other food editors for dinner at a restaurant where the chef is known for molecular gastronomy, and I shouldn’t spend several hundred dollars on a 12-course tasting menu with six flights of wine? Eating locally supports my community, but what about my love for avocados and Parmigiano- Reggiano cheese? Does being a Friend mean foie gras is off limits? (Most foie gras is produced by gavage, the ancient practice of force-feeding ducks and geese, which is considered by many to be cruel. For this reason, foie gras has been legally banned in 15 countries, was banned briefly in Chicago, and a gavage ban will go into effect in California in 2012.) And what about shellfish, which some say suffer painfully cruel deaths while being cooked? Have I already had my last Chesapeake crab boil, my last New England lobster roll? Does being Quaker mean that no more mignonette-drizzled oysters will slide half-alive down my throat?

The thought of giving up lobster rolls, I admit for better or worse, has been a bit overwhelming. So I moved the lobsters to the back burner of my mind. To be honest, though I still struggle with some of these questions, deep down I’ve discovered I feel that applying Quaker testimonies to food has to be about more than just coming up with a list of what not to eat. In other faith traditions, foods or food restrictions are used to help worshipers feel a connection to the Divine, to identify people as belonging to a certain group, as a means of purification or becoming holy, or to intensify prayer (as during a fast). But as a Quaker, I don’t need food for sacrament or for sanctification. I’ve found myself needing to seek and have clarity about the faith-based reasons for the food choices I make, whether that means sticking to how I already eat, or taking a new approach. Becoming a vegetarian has been a possibility (with some challenges to resolve), but I don’t simply want to stop eating meat and let myself think that by doing so, I’ve satisfied the Spirit’s call where it comes to food and excuse myself from further thought, care, or divine leadings about eating.

So I put the lobsters aside, and for months I let my thoughts brew while I went about my business, which includes:

  • Reading about food.
  • Reviewing new food products and writing about nutrition.
  • Attending conferences and press events about food.
  • Shopping and cooking for my live-in omnivorous companion and myself.
  • Volunteering to cook and serve meals for homeless people in my city.
  • Growing vegetables on a plot at an urban community garden.
  • Explaining to a friend how to make meringue that won’t shrink or weep.

And, as sure as simmering my favorite Thai vegetable stew, something started to happen. While carrying on all of my day-to-day food business, I’ve noticed there are a lot of people involved: people who do different jobs, come from different ethnicities, have different incomes, speak different languages, live in different places. Even when my dinner is a microwaved frozen entrĂ©e eaten alone in front of my computer on a late night at my office, many hands have made that dinner possible. Each person involved possesses a unique piece of the larger food puzzle. In our rushed society and culture of modern conveniences, where children can eat for years without knowing that chickens don’t have fingers, we have lost touch with the land and sea and beasts. (In fact, a survey recently conducted in Britain found 26 percent of people 16 and younger believe bacon comes from sheep, and 29 percent believe oats grow on trees.)

We’ve lost touch with people, too. If we are the kind of folks to say grace, we might remember to ask God to bless the hands that made our supper. A printed apron may remind us to “kiss the cook.” We leave tips for waiters, but rarely think about the line cook who may have come to work sick because he can’t afford to lose money by taking a day off (and the kitchen can’t afford for him to be off the line), and much less can he afford to go to a doc-in-the-box at $250 a pop (before buying any prescribed medicines) because the restaurant he works for can’t afford to offer health insurance. He’s the guy who no longer feels much pain when he uses his practiced asbestos-like fingers to tempt licking flames and searing-hot sautĂ© pans to prod your chicken breast to test that it is perfectly cooked, or to save your portabella mushroom cap from falling through the grill.

Paying attention to people seems to me to be a very Quakerly thing. And, in our current food climate, it is an important thing. (Not that animals don’t deserve our attention; in fact, whether you eat meat or not, it is in the best interests of people to concern ourselves with the best interests of animals.)

Five years ago, when I told people I was going to culinary school and graduate school to become a food journalist, most assumed I planned to write memoirs of wonderful food in Tuscany, or land a cushy job spending someone else’s money on high-dollar meals and writing restaurant reviews. That is to say, many people in the United States think of food as entertainment first. Now, five years later, we are beginning to see that food is about more than that. More people recognize that food touches our environment, our energy consumption, our policies, our economy and labor practices and businesses, our health, and even our national security.

I do still think about whether ordering the lobster roll or the fresh corn cakes with romesco would be the best expression of my beliefs. But beyond that decision, I now have an expanded field of questions and issues that drive me to take more action, in addition to discriminating between foods on a menu. Some are questions more people are asking themselves, and I think all are questions that everyone who eats should be asking.

Are the people who raise, catch, harvest, butcher, and cook my food being treated fairly?

For some time I’ve purchased fairtrade chocolate, because I choose not to support slavery involved in the cacao and chocolate industry. I also buy other fair-trade products such as sugar, honey, and coffee. I buy organic, not just for the health of those at my table, but also with the hope of sparing farm workers the constant exposure to chemicals that can endanger health.

But there are many more labor issues intertwined in the food we eat. In Iowa in 2009, the U.S. Department of Justice and the FBI launched an investigation into a turkey-processing company which employed mentally disabled men, paying them reduced wages because of their disability, then deducting from their paychecks fees for room, board, and care—leaving the men with as little as $65 in salary a month. Fire marshals shut down the deteriorating bunkhouse where the men lived.

Barry Estabrook wrote “Politics of the Plate: The Price of Tomatoes” (in the March 2009 issue of Gourmet) about the treatment of tomato farm workers in Immokalee, Florida. His article described a system in which both immigrant and homeless U.S.-born workers are recruited into what amounts to slavery, where workers can barely afford to buy food for themselves, are beaten if they are too sick to work, are threatened if they try to leave, share cramped quarters, and pay unfair prices for housing and other necessities ($5 for a cold shower from a hose, according to Estabrook’s article). Some workers have been locked in the backs of trucks. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers formed to fight for humane treatment, and part of their Campaign for Fair Food asks grocers and fast food chains to pay a mere penny more per pound, so that farm workers could get a 64-percent raise—and earn livable wages.

The tomato workers have won some victories. But there are more food worker issues that need to be addressed. Taking the welfare of workers into consideration when buying food is part of early Quaker tradition; in 1791, William Fox wrote an “Anti-Sugar Pamphlet” as part of the abolition efforts, which also discouraged people from buying rum. Many Quakers refused to buy slavegrown sugar from the West Indies. Quaker merchant James Wright stopped selling sugar.

Are people getting access to affordable, fresh food?

Cities all across our country have “food deserts”—areas where access to fresh, affordable produce is poor or nonexistent. Some food deserts are in rural areas, where the population is too low to support a grocery store. Some have been created as the economy has consolidated the grocery store market, forcing some stores to close and leaving fewer stores available. Some are in low-income areas, often populated largely by African Americans, Hispanics, and other people in ethnic minority groups—areas in which grocery store owners and executives have said the community can’t support a store financially, or that the cost of preventing crime is too expensive to justify opening or maintaining a store. (Food justice advocates argue there are ways to run a grocery store successfully even with both of these factors.) Still other food deserts are in high-dollar exclusive urban areas—areas where real estate is too expensive to justify establishing a grocery store, or where parking and traffic can’t accommodate the inflow of trucks delivering loads of food.

People who live in food deserts are often left with fast food restaurants and gas station convenience stores as the closest places to buy food. Going outside of the neighborhood to buy fruit and vegetables is problematic without a car or good public transportation. Because of the lack of healthy food choices, people living in food deserts experience diabetes, obesity, heart disease, cancer, and early death at higher rates than those who don’t, according to the National Center for Public Research (which declared September as National Food Desert Awareness Month). Already, small grassroots groups and organizations like the Community Food Security Coalition are implementing solutions such as urban community gardening, mobile farmer’s markets, and independent corner stores that sell healthy foods and service people on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, or more commonly known as the food stamp program). These solutions need people to start them in more communities, and to make them work.

Other issues that concern me: Reducing or eliminating sales tax on food. My state, Alabama, is one of seven states that still taxes groceries at the full sales tax rate without offering low-income families a credit. (In my city, Birmingham, sales tax is 10 percent.)

Whether people can actually afford a steady supply of fresh fruit and vegetables on SNAP. In 2008, the average monthly benefit for an individual was $101 a month (that’s just over $25 a week), and $227 a month for a household. For perspective, the USDA Economic Research Service reports that in 2004, the average individual in this country spent $31.67 a week on food eaten at home; add food eaten out, and it comes to $56.88 a week for food for one person.

Are we creating a sustainable food system so that future generations will have the food and water they need?

Or are we creating shortages that could lead to international crisis and conflict? The headlines scream that we are headed that way, as do environmental activists, scientists, and ongoing research. Climate change creates droughts in some areas and floods in others, both devastating to agriculture. Our natural resources aren’t just stretched thin; they’re being depleted, even as population growth, wealth, and commercial ambition place more demand on those resources to produce food. Already, for instance, drought and severe weather changes have created food shortages and crises in Somalia, Guatemala, and Asia, where 1.6 billion people face both food and water insecurity. A two-year drought has forced the Iraqi government to ban rice farming in southern parts of that country to preserve water for other purposes, and experts warn the water shortage could lead to an armed conflict over water between Turkey, Syria, and Iraq. Here in the United States, we produce 41 percent of the world’s corn and 38 percent of the world’s soybeans—but climate change will drastically change that: researchers at Arizona State University say by the end of the century, the best-case scenario is that crop yields will drop by 30 to 46 percent. Worst-case scenario: crop yields drop by 63 to 82 percent.

I can’t ignore that caring for our resources and environment—and giving my business to companies that do so— are becoming increasingly critical to living the Peace Testimony. And so is food sovereignty, the right for people to have control over how their land and water are used to produce food and to benefit directly from it.

Is everyone being invited to the growing national discourse on food?

Slow Food, an organization started by an Italian journalist with the good intention of getting people to appreciate foods, has been criticized in the past for simply creating a network of elitist supper clubs. Whole Foods, the grocery chain most associated with organic foods, is often called “whole paycheck”— suggesting that anyone with a modest income couldn’t afford to shop there. Michael Pollan, journalist and author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, has come off to some as being elitist for the food choice suggestions in his writings.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m glad this conversation has started. But everyone needs to come to the table. I don’t want to see my country develop a healthy food system that only serves a small percentage of people with the money to access it on a regular basis. At the same time, I believe farmers who produce food with care for land, animals, and people should be fairly compensated. I don’t want a food system that exploits people, or leaves entire communities with nothing but sugar, fat, and salt-laden foods with little nutritive value and produced with hormones and chemicals. I don’t want a system that leaves people fighting over water and land. I don’t know what the solutions to these issues are, but I don’t believe we can reach fair solutions if entire groups of people are left out of the conversation.

These are questions I ask myself, and I strive to find or create the answers. I am ready to see people of faith engage their core beliefs to get involved in these issues in our communities: to start conversations; to be agents of change as leaders, active citizens, educators, advocates, and volunteer workers, too. Simply using my three meals a day to voice my preferences can make a difference. Food is in the fabric of religious practice, even if the only time you think about it is during your meeting’s annual canned food drive. Food has been a part of faith since God sent mysterious manna from heaven, since Allah led Hagar and Ishmael to life-saving water, since Jesus poured wine and broke bread and said, “Take, eat . . .” People of faith take Holy Communion, give up foods for Ramadan or Lent, and partake of special foods for Passover or Eid or Easter. Believers in almost every religion are urged to express divine compassion by feeding the hungry. We buy groceries for poor families during the holidays, take casseroles to shut-ins or the grieving, and have Sunday potlucks with our fellow believers. The Catholic Church made wheat and wine and fish into major commodities. Kosher and halal laws are the foundations of food producing and processing businesses around the world.

I now believe the Divine has set an example and given me a mandate—and the power—to eat consciously. Sadly, our current mainstream food system makes it far too easy for us to do the opposite; we don’t really have to think about eating. For most consumers, eating is cheap, easy, and as effortless as opening a package, pressing a button, or driving by a window. Little about eating this kind of food reminds us that it comes from the land, the sea, from creatures, or by the work of people. And that has brought us to an unfair, unhealthy, and wasteful place.


Shaun Chavis, a member of Birmingham (Ala.) Meeting, specializes in food journalism. She is an associate editor for Health magazine.