I find something reassuring in the story of Jesus beginning his public ministry at a feast, a celebration, and being responsible for the days best wine. Fruit of the earth and work of human hands, we say of the elements on the altar at Mass. Food is serious stuff.
In turn, the cover story by Rich Heffern is deeply disturbing. What have we done to this work that is so deeply engrained in human experience? Are we in danger of disconnecting it from anything human and nurturing to nothing more than an exercise in chemically induced efficiency? Are we at the point of completely severing our ties with land and growing cycles and a respect for those who grow our food?
Quite frankly, it is a story that is distressing in its details and inconvenient in its implications. But I am also convinced that it is a story we all should square up with, in a way like the old medicine that tastes awful but will make you feel better in the end. This is a story without additives or sweeteners.
Heffern might best be described as a practical green. He doesnt eschew convenience or modernity, but he also dares to raise the tough questions. He puts his money and his efforts where his words are: He drives one of those hybrid cars (it runs on gasoline and electric battery), keeps us on the recycling schedule and has been active in connecting city and local farmer here in Kansas City.
Dont get the idea that he is some common scold. Far from it -- hes got a wonderful sense of humor, even when hes wont to tell you what those fast-food fries are coated with.
The stories, this weeks and next weeks, youll see, are about more than just the out-of-control economics and mechanics of the food industry. As Heffern points out, the bishops have probably written as much about food and how we produce it -- and how that production is devastating family farms and rural life -- as they have about most other subjects.
These reports, at their deepest level, are about something sacred that is fast being lost.
That something sacred accompanies gatherings around food was a point made early in my childhood amid endless gatherings of a large extended Italian-American family around long tables. Those gatherings happened as naturally as breathing, for just about everything -- holidays, funerals, baptisms, weddings, anniversaries. For hours the adults would be gathered around the table -- conversation, food, conversation, food, laughter, food, sometimes tears. Some years later those same images would provide a doorway to understanding communion, community and other sacred moments.
I dont want to romanticize farming or suggest we all imitate the Amish. But something sacred is being defiled, and we can do something about it. The first two parts of this series may make you think twice in your next breeze through the supermarket aisles. I promise that by Week 3 well be providing some practical tips on how to reconnect that city or suburban table with a local grower who may not make the grandiose claim of feeding the world but who does a rather good job at nourishing a small corner of it.
-- Tom Roberts
My e-mail address is email@example.com
National Catholic Reporter, May 24, 2002