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Eating well is a Christian discipline

06 September 2013

Justice and generosity should characterise our attitude to food, argues Peter Graystone

HER first best-selling book of recipes this century did not have any word that relates to cookery in its title. It was called How to Eat (1999). Nigella Lawson's book caught the Zeitgeist by suggesting that the awkward, slightly guilty relationship we were developing with food was not because we had lost our skills at preparing it, but something more fundamental. We had lost our love of eating.

If food was a source of anxiety ten years ago, it is now the cause of something closer to panic. One catastrophe after another has led us to realise that our attitude to food must change.

Some months ago, traces of horsemeat were found in products advertised as beef. This is not a problem that has an impact on health, however, because horsemeat is nutritious, and is enjoyed in countries that have a less sentimental attitude to what goes on their plate. Rather, it is a problem of trust, because suppliers have found the margins forced on them by supermarkets so tight that the temptation to substitute cheaper alternatives is overwhelming.

Our bee colonies are collapsing, which has a calamitous impact on the pollination of fruit and vegetables. The very future of some varieties is threatened. It is believed that the cause is the copious use of pesticides on crops. The pressure to increase their yields derives from our voracious insistence that food must be ever cheaper.

The way we eat shapes the way we think, as much as anything we read. Indeed, the word "culture" derives from the word our forefathers used for tilling the soil. We cultivate minds - even those of us who never cultivate the land.

Together, the way we eat and the way we think need to be reformed by justice and generosity.

We need justice in the food chain because it is unacceptable that we should enjoy food at cheap prices because they have been subsidised by its vulnerable suppliers. This is true whether a farmer grows bananas in the Caribbean, or herds sheep in north-east England. The average annual income of a hill farmer in County Durham is £12,600. The Fairtrade Foundation has given us a way to ensure that we do not collude with evil when we buy produce from the developing world. Who will pressurise supermarkets on behalf of British agriculture's poor?

We need generosity in the food chain because we must remember that being prepared to pay the true cost of food is not a luxury that everyone can afford. For the health of our citizens, we must press for a living wage for all workers. Until that day comes, God bless every single church that has organised a food bank. The need for them shames our nation, but the provision of them is a mark of the Kingdom of God.

When Jesus established the way he was to be , long after he walked through the cornfields of Galilee, he must surely have considered instructing his followers to say a certain prayer, or recite particular words. But he didn't. Instead, he chose to be remembered by doing something that virtually every human can do effortlessly. He asked to be remembered by eating and drinking.

Guilt, trust, justice, generosity: these words that characterise our relationship with food are words usually associated with theology, not cuisine. Not only is our culture under threat from our damaged attitude to food, so is our spirituality. We cannot be sincerely Christian if we forget how to eat.

Peter Graystone develops pioneer mission projects for Church Army.

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