About ten years ago I started to become vegetarian. But although my menu shifted, my Christian observance continued pretty much the same. A cradle Anglican, I was a graduate student at King’s College, Cambridge. Evensong in chapel was a staple of my spiritual diet, often followed by dinner in the hall. Although physical sustenance came right after spiritual sustenance, I had little sense of a link between the two beyond the notion that sharing food with others was a good thing to do and that one should not take too much food in order to leave plenty for others. As a Christian, I was not unusual in failing to make connections between faith and food.
A breakfast frequently served at my son’s school—where over half the children receive government-supported meals—consists of commercially produced French toast sticks and syrup. The list of ingredients on the package for this meal is as long as this paragraph. It includes not only partially hydrogenated soybean oil and high fructose corn syrup, but also more mystifying additives like gelatinized wheat starch, calcium caseinate, lecithin, guar gum and cellulose gum. The story of how these items arrive at a school cafeteria and are designated as food is a long and complicated one involving the interaction of farmers, government policy makers and the food industry. The modern story of why we eat what we eat begins in the 1930s, when President Franklin Roosevelt faced the challenges of the Depression. He saw that many farmers were poor and that one in every five people in the country was undernourished. Farmers and other Americans were too vulnerable, he believed, to the cycles of boom and bust.
The prominent place of food and meals in the Bible may be surprising to us fast-food and take-out eaters. Back in biblical times, gathering and preparing food took time and occupied a significant part of Israel’s life. The danger of famine (due to natural calamities or crop failure) gave special importance to food. Water was drawn from a well or spring, not a faucet or commercial bottle. Bread was baked from scratch, and beans and lentils simmered for hours.