My mother was a Depression baby in rural North Carolina. At an early age she knew what it was to be hungry, unsure of when and what her next meal would be. As an adult with her own family, she oversaw cupboards jammed with canned goods, a large chest freezer packed with parcels of meat wrapped in white butcher paper and plastic boxes of last summer’s strawberries and sweet corn, and a basement that held dozens of jars of home-canned pickles, green beans, cherries, beets, and jam.
No one within shouting distance of her (and the woman could shout) was going to know anything about hunger. Food was security, in several senses of the word—both preparation to meet real physical needs and contingencies and, I am quite sure, a salve for deep emotional and spiritual wounds inflicted by a difficult and sometimes violent upbringing.
As Christians, many different interpretations of the phrase “food security” are appropriate for our attention. The church often splits over interpretation of Bible verses such as “he has filled the hungry with good things” (Luke 1:53). Some factions favor a purely this-world, material understanding; others take those words as only metaphor for a spiritual feast. But, God’s ongoing dream for us seems to include both satisfying our hunger and thirst for the living bread and water that heals and nourishes our sin-sick souls and providing the literal bread and water to keep our bodies alive, blessed, and blessing. In either case, the promise isn’t to fill us with whatever puffed-air and high-fructose-corn-syrup spiritual or material amalgam is handy, but rather with “good things.”
FOOD SYSTEMS researchers Mike Hamm and Anne Bellows define community food security as “a condition in which all community residents obtain a safe, culturally acceptable, nutritionally adequate diet through a sustainable food system that maximizes community self-reliance and social justice.” This is the opposite of finding security by stocking up or hoarding. Rather, this security comes through equitable distribution and accessibility of food—enough for everyone, attainable even to those with low or no income.
But you’ll note that this definition, like Mary’s song quoted in the Luke passage, has more facets than simply supply to meet demand. It’s about food that is also good: safe food that doesn’t harm through excessive chemicals, unsafe preparation, or improper storage. Food with substance and complexity—fiber, minerals, vitamins, healthy sources of protein—not just calories comprised almost entirely of the cheapest available fat or carbohydrates. And food rich with tradition, meals where stories, memories, celebration, and identity are not just contained in conversations but served up with the spooning of the stew and breaking of the bread.
That last item can seem like a contradiction—many of us can probably think of plenty of “bad-for-us” treats in our family, ethnic, or regional traditions. But excellent nutrition and remembering the ways of our forebears are not mutually exclusive. Pima Indians in Arizona have an extremely high rate of type 2 diabetes, an increase linked to abrupt shifts in lifestyle and diet that began in the late 19th century, when U.S. settlers’ seizure of water sources undercut the Pima farming economy and they became dependent on government-supplied lard, sugar, and white flour for many of their calories. Studies now suggest that, along with increasing activity, a return to a traditional Pima diet—high in legumes, squash, and other vegetables and low in fat—significantly reduces the incidence of diabetes.
This example also touches on scale and sustainability, other key components of community food security. What sources of food are close at hand? What sources could be created? Individuals and communities benefit when existing local farms and food preparers survive and thrive.
Ultimately, community food security is about seeing a plate of food as not just nutrition or pleasure, but as a nexus of dynamic relationships between people, creation, and social and economic structures. Good food feeds individual people but also sustains whole communities. Every empty stomach, like every thirsting soul, weakens us all.
Julie Polter is an associate editor of Sojourners.