A sermon given by Rev. Rebecca Hinds on Sunday, August 16, 2015
The American Supermarket is a land of plenty. Fresh fruits and vegetables from every corner of the world, limitless convenience and novelty products in the center aisles, frozen foods, TV dinners, pre-packaged heat and serve meals, imported and ethnic products from countries near and far. As long as you have some money to spend, you can get just about anything in an American supermarket. Or at least that is how it feels. Endless options. Endless consumer choice. The American dream. Eat, drink, and be happy.
America has the eating and drinking part nailed down. What I wonder about is our ability to be happy. What I wonder about is our ability to enjoy, savor, and truly connect with our food.
In Post World War II America, consumer choice and convenience products were a blessing. After the Depression and the war, a time of hunger, poverty and food rationing, it was believed that prosperity in America would mean an end to hunger. “A chicken in every pot.” Everyone deserved to have good, healthy food. And leisure time to enjoy life. So we started to spend money on foods we could prepare quickly. We started to demand processed foods. And then the appliances needed for these products – a freezer for frozen dinners, dishwashers, and more. Our standard of living increased and convenience products grew to be seen as better food.
In “The Path to the Table: Cooking in Postwar American Suburbs,” Timothy Miller says that, “From the consumers point of view, these products often seemed like a godsend. This was a time that was only a few decades removed from charcoal stoves and gas lamps…Processed foods appealed to people because of their newness and ease of use. Busy women, especially those with jobs, used convenience foods to make time for themselves, for example by buying a box of Kraft Macaroni Dinner instead of preparing macaroni and cheese from scratch. This was a time when, to many people, preparing a meal by opening a number of cans and mixing them together was viewed positively.” (Miller, p. 76)
Eating this way is quick and simple and we’ve learned to think it is better. Since the 1950s Americans have enthusiastically embraced the idea that saving time on cooking and cleaning gives us freedom and more leisure time to enjoy life. Today food is cheaper and easier to prepare than ever. According to Michael Pollan, in “Today Americans spend a smaller percentage of their income on food than any people in history—slightly less than 10 percent—and a smaller amount of their time preparing it: a mere thirty-one minutes a day on average, including clean-up.” (Pollan, The Food Movement, Rising, The New York Review of Books, May 20, 2010) This is remarkable! If we don’t want to we actually don’t have to think very much about food. It is readily available, fast, cheap, and convenient and has been for many decades now.
Growing up in the late 20th century this type of eating, fueled by the commodity food business was all I knew. Entering young adulthood I was used to it.
When I was 19 years old I moved into my first apartment near the University of Minnesota in downtown Minneapolis. The first night I lived there I hadn’t unpacked my kitchen yet so I couldn’t cook. Hungry and exhausted, I ventured out that night into my new neighborhood and discovered I had plenty of options. Fast food restaurants, pubs, sit-down dinner places, anything a young college student could want. I few blocks later I found myself at a Chipotle. It was 2002 and I had never heard of Chipotle before, so this was exciting. As I sat there eating my first meal as an apartment renter living on my own, I had plenty: more options than I could possible want, more food than I could eat, and I had never felt so alone or alienated. I was eating, so why wasn’t I satisfied?
In Ecclesiastes we hear, “eat and drink and find satisfaction.” Eat, Drink, and Be Merry! Said Isaiah and Luke. It sounds like this means “Go ahead and have as much as you want” for eating and indulging pleases God.
But this too is vanity. A chasing after wind. The Hebrew word is hebel, it is often translated as meaningless or vanity but the meaning of the word has never been entirely clear. Over the years it has also been translated as “emptiness,” “futility,” “uselessness,” “vapor,” “breath,” and “absurdity.” So Ecclesiastes tells us that eating and drinking is absurd when it is thoughtless, unconscious, or gluttonous.
So what does please God? What is right and good and fitting when it comes to eating?
Think of the best meal you have ever had. Perhaps it was out at a restaurant. Like the time I came out of the woods after a week long camping trip and drove straight to the Dairy Queen. Or maybe it was at a 5 Star Restaurant? But I am more willing to bet it was a shared, family meal. Maybe even a home cooked meal? Who were you with for this meal?
When I think of the best meal I’ve ever had, I don’t think of just one. I think of the decades of shared family dinners I ate with my family of origin. Every evening as I was growing up my family sat together for dinner. It was extremely rare for me to find myself eating alone. We coordinated our schedules and waited for one another to get home if necessary. We broke bread together every single night.
I know this is getting harder and harder in American homes. Today more and more households are made up of single adults. For families, most families have two working parents and the tradition of eating together as a family has dwindled. More and more people are eating most of their meals alone or at their desk. Amongst my peers, I know my experience with family dinners growing up was rare. For most of my peers growing up in the late 20th century in middle-class neighborhoods like my own, food was everywhere all of the time, easy to heat up, quick to eat, and it required very little thought. Remember Go-Gurt? Yogurt for people on the go?
We may not have to think about it, in fact, we have been encouraged not to think about it, but Americans ARE thinking about food. In 2015 just about everyone I know is thinking about the ethical, environmental, and health impacts of their food choices. Folks are choosing to live their values through what they eat, voting against the commodity food business with each of their purchases, in many cases choosing to spend more money on better quality food. In a recent study by Millenial Marketing, millennials like myself, folks born between 1980-2000, prefer whole foods to processed foods and will spend more money on ethically-processed meats and farm-to-table experiences. 87% of millennials will splurge on a nice meal even when money is tight. 30% of us eat organic (compared to 20% of Gen-Xers, and 15% of Baby Boomers), 55% of us prefer communal tables at restaurants and most of us prefer grocery shopping in groups. (www.millennialmarketing.com)
We are all looking to connect more deeply with our food and with the experience of eating well and in community. Turning away from mindless consumption, we are leaning into a more equitable, shared food economy, and choosing to find eating pleasurable again.
This is the food movement. A movement “about community, identity, pleasure, and, most notably, about carving out a new social and economic space removed from the influence of big corporations on the one side and government on the other.” (Pollan, The Food Movement, Rising, The New York Review of Books, May 20, 2010)
This does not necessarily suggest that we all need to buy organic or join a CSA, those are wonderful options if you can afford them, but it does suggest that we need a new food economy and more ethical options. Some years ago a group of folks in Dorchester came up with one idea. Tired of seeing so much expensive produce from the grocery stores go to waste, this group of folks started a project now called Fair Foods that redistributes surplus food that for a variety of reasons isn’t going to make it to the grocery store shelves and would otherwise be thrown away. Fair Foods partners with industrial suppliers to rescue food doomed for the landfill, they package it in mixed bags and sell it all over Boston for $2 a bag. They used to give the bags away for free but quickly realized that there is dignity in a dollar, and most folks want to pay for the food they eat, even if it is just $2 for a 12 pound bag of fresh produce. In this way low-income folks all over Boston have access to dignity and healthy food. It is not necessarily organic or local, but it is DEFINIELTY outside of the commodity food business, separate from corporations, and distinctly different from consumerism in the general super market. This model is a way out of consumerism and corporate control for the community of Boston.
People all over the country have decided to step outside of consumerism when it comes to eating. Eating feels better when we know more about our food and we are in relationship with it. So folks are growing their own food, starting urban farms, eating locally, and thinking creatively about how all people can have access to good, healthy food that tastes good and feels good to eat. We are slowing down. There is the Food Movement, the Local Movement, the Slow Food Movement, and more. Rabbi Harold Kushner tells us, “Life is about loving and being loved. It is about enjoying your food and sitting in the sun rather than rushing through lunch and hurrying back to the office. It is about savoring the beauty of moments that don’t last, the sunsets, the leaves turning color, the rare moments of true human communication. It is about savoring them rather than missing out on them because we are so busy and they will not hold still until we get around to them.” (Kushner, When All You’ve Ever Wanted Isn’t Enough. p. 142)
Perhaps this is what we can learn from Ecclesiastes. Perhaps this is what it means to find satisfaction in our work and to be merry: to make eating a practice of standing in awe of creation, mindfully savoring each bite, consuming food as part of a wider network of moral and ethical decisions. Think about what you eat. Mindfully prepare your food and, when you can, eat it with others, whether you are with friends and loved ones or sometimes even just with strangers at a communal table in a restaurant. What ever it is, do it with intention and purpose. Find pleasure in your consumption of food because human beings should enjoy life. Find pleasure in each small act and small meal. We don’t have to figure this all out overnight or change all of our habits today, but we can start making a difference towards the health of the environment, our own bodies, and the community by practicing mindful consumption. Eat, drink, and find satisfaction in your toil. At least three times a day.