One thing I have learned in my year in the Boston Young Adult Volunteer program is that food is a great equalizer. At the most basic level of our humanity we all have to eat. Breaking bread and sharing a meal together can create and symbolize intimate friendship, which was as true back in Jesus’ time as today.
Food brings people together like nothing else.
Another thing I have learned during this year is that food makes people extremely defensive. Some folks love to talk about local, organic, etc. food while others take it as a personal attack about their lifestyle. How and what we eat is so personal and a huge part of who we are, but something we don’t think much about, especially the effects of our food decisions on the environment and other people. (Start talking about making your own homemade, local, organic spinach pasta and people will either love it and think it’s awesome or roll their eyes because they think you’re pretentious.)
Food can divide people like nothing else.
The main way we are divided by food is by hunger—some people are able to eat enough healthy food and some aren’t. This can be as drastic at the fact that in some places children are dying of starvation and malnutrition while in the U.S. we throw away 40 percent of our food, or as subtle as who shops at farmers markets and who doesn’t, what food is considered elite and gourmet and what is cheap calories. Hunger isn’t a food shortage problem but one of poverty and access. There are some things we know:
- Latino households are more than twice as likely to be food insecure as white, non-Hispanic households and poverty rates for Hispanics are nearly triple that of non-Hispanic Whites (Feeding America).
- 14.5 percent of U.S. households struggle to put enough food on the table. More than 48 million Americans—including 15.9 million children—live in these households. Half of all American children will receive SNAP benefits at some point before age 20; 90 percent of African-American children will enroll in SNAP before age 20 (Bread for the World).
- For African American seniors, the risk of hunger rate was 17.2% and the rates for Hispanic seniors were 18.2% compared to 15.2% nationally (National Foundation to End Senior Hunger).
- The 2010 poverty rate was 15.1 percent, up from 12.5 percent in 1997. The poverty rate for Hispanics was 26.6 percent, for Blacks 27.4 percent (World Hunger Education Service).
Boston is a really interesting place for many reasons, especially because it is so young and culturally diverse. It is extremely progressive, eco-, bike-, and exercise-friendly, and definitely a foodie town. But somewhere in all that progress they seem to have decided that they’re beyond any -isms, such as racism, classism, sexism, etc. They seem to think those are other people’s problems that exist elsewhere or in the past. However, living in this “post-racial” society is just perpetuating the problems and discrimination that are alive and well right here, built into the social fabric. It is clear that in the U.S., including Massachusetts, race is a factor in hunger and poverty, and being aware of a problem doesn’t make it go away, but it’s the only way to start working on it.
There are some great organizations out there growing food and building figurative bridges in our community. The Boston YAVs have had the opportunity to volunteer with a few, such as the Earthworks Urban Farm in Detroit, which provides produce to two soup kitchens 6 days of the week. This Capuchin ministry employs people from minority neighborhoods that the rest of the country has forgotten about to grow food to help others in their community. Cape Abilities in Cape Cod employs differently-abled folks in their multiple farms, greenhouses, and store-fronts as well as provides education, housing, and transportation services.
Poverty, hunger, inequality, and injustice in its many forms separate us from our neighbors and keep us from loving each other as Christ commands. It’s a daunting challenge, but growing and eating food together is a good place to start.