America has been described as a nation overfed and undernourished. The “western diet” as it’s commonly called is typically characterized by a high intake of meat, sugar, saturated fats, and refined grains. Many of the food products on the grocery store shelves, specifically engineered to stimulate our taste buds and leave us craving more, offer very little in terms of actual nutrition or health benefit. Perhaps this is another example of what J. Philip Newell describes as the Western world’s “extreme insensitivities to creation.” In chapter 3 of The Book of Creation, Newell explores the fecundity of God and invites us to “find new ways of reopening the doors of our senses to creation.”
Perhaps we ought to start with our sense of taste and our relationship with food. Highly processed, nutritionally poor convenience foods have altered the types of foods many of us now find enjoyable. So much so that when it comes to a quick bite, we often reach for a soda or a candy bar more readily than a piece of fruit or a handful of nuts. Food products that have been chemically altered using flavorings and added sugars may even cause us to prefer artificial fruit flavoring to the actual fruit itself. One way that we might reclaim our relationship with the natural world is to enjoy the offerings of the earth – fruits, vegetables, grains – in more natural and less processed forms . If instead of snacking on junk foods like candy or chips (or even “better for you” junk foods like granola bars and “made from real fruit” snacks), we would turn instead to grapes, apples, carrots, or sweet peppers, how might our taste buds and our bodies respond? If our typical diets have long favored artificial flavoring and fake, chemically altered foods, then our taste buds may require a retraining period, but certainly our bodies would respond favorably.
Paying closer attention to what we put into our mouths may cause us to pay closer attention to how that food is grown or sourced. Looking into growing practices may help us better understand biodiversity, sustainability, and conservation. We may begin to ask questions like, How can we grow and produce nutritious foods in ways that are both cost effective and environmentally sound? How can we nourish and feed ourselves in ways that are healthy and sustainable? Newell argues that “it is the experience of the goodness of the earth that will help sustain our commitment to care for the earth.” But what if we lack the experience, having moved too far from the source? If we come to depend on food that has more in common with chemistry than with nature, will that foster or impede our commitment to care for the earth?
In addition to the apparent health and environmental benefits of producing and consuming whole and natural foods, might there also be a spiritual/moral imperative for minding what we grow, process, and eat? God has indeed provided a fertile, abundant earth. As stewards of that abundance, are we helping or hindering that blessing with our current practices? Can we sustain our current needs and practices without depleting or destroying our resources? In what ways are we impacting the soil, water, and air? Exactly how are we treating the animals that provide us meat and dairy products? When we exploit, neglect, or otherwise fail to conserve the blessings that have been bestowed upon us, what does that say about the way we regard the Creator, our source?
There is another important moral consideration when it comes to food and eating well. The healthiest, most nutritious foods in the grocery store (fresh fruits and vegetables) are also among the most expensive. Highly processed foods, calorie dense and nutrient poor, also happen to be the cheapest and are frequently on sale. It might seem logical to argue that the extra “up front” cost now will equal a savings later on in terms of our collective health and shared environment. But for someone without any extra cushion in the budget, that might be asking too much. It’s not enough for us to examine our own eating habits and how we might improve our own individual nutrition. We must also consider how the entire system operates and look for ways to produce and provide access to affordable, nutritious foods for all people, rich or poor. Afterall, as Newell states, “Have the gifts of nature been given more for one type of person than for another? Would we think of saying that the gifts of the altar are exclusively for the rich, or that better wine and better bread are to be given to some and not to others?” The gifts of the altar are indeed intended for all of God’s children. So, too, are the many gifts found in nature. Our challenge, if we choose to confront it, is to figure out how to bring those gifts to the table in cost effective, sustainable ways so that we can properly nourish ourselves in the short-term without sacrificing the needs of our children and grandchildren in the years to come.