The FoodiEvangelist

Time magazine’s “100 Most Influential People of 2010” included real-food advocate Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemma, In Defense of Food, and Food Rules), urban farmer Will Allen, animal welfare championTemple Grandin, and deputy USDA secretary Kathleen Merrigan, who wrote the 1990 Organic Foods Production Act (the first federal legislation establishing standards for the “organic” title).

Over the summer ABC ran a second season of the series “Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution,” in which the British celebrity chef fights to replace the processed food in school cafeterias with fresh produce and whole foods, and teaches Americans how to cook simple meals instead of patronizing the drive-thru, all the while emphasizing that this is a “life and death” issue.

First Lady Michelle Obama has made diet-related disease her primary cause, planting a teaching garden at the White House and encouraging Americans to get to know their farmers.

There is no denying that a foodie frenzy has taken hold in this country. Suddenly it is not enough simply to eat organic – you must find the most local produce possible at the farmer’s market. The new “status lawn” is a backyard homestead, complete with Victory Garden, compost bin, and free-ranging chickens. The Food Network has spun off a second cooking channel and has already spurred many competitors (from TLC to The Travel Channel) to feature food-centric shows. And just recently I read on my Starbucks napkin that they no longer use artificial colors or flavors, hydrogenated oils, or the real boogie man, High Fructose Corn Syrup.

The backlash against the “industrial food complex” is strong and vocal, demanding an end to the prevalence of convenient but unhealthy food produced in non-sustainable ways. The major players also call for an end to the prevailing wisdom of “Nutritionism” (Michael Pollan’s term): the idea that food is merely biological fuel in the form of key nutrients, and no matter how they are consumed, it is the nutrients that matter the most. No longer is the nutrition info box on the side of the carton the only place one should look to know whether something is good to eat (good not only meaning healthy, but also tasty! Which actually matters to these people!).

I call this lifestyle choice the “religion” of the foodie – it calls for a change in one’s eating habits that makes them less convenient, more expensive, and ultimately more satisfying and nurturing. I call myself a “FoodiEvangelist” because I believe that this dogma can be instructive to persons of faith (particularly those of my own persuasion, which is Christian).

Foodies preach that food is more than the sum of its scientific parts; it is a mysterious and infinitely complex web of interactions between the earth, animals, plants, and our bodies. Somehow, all of that together makes us healthy and strong, but it can’t be broken down into miracle substances that work in isolation (which is why vitamin pills don’t always help much, and why we must get away from jumping onto fads in nutritionism, like omega-3s, antioxidants, artificial sweetener, low fat – remember when we all ate margarine, until we found out it contained poisonous transfats? Or aspartame dominated our sweet stuff, but was recently classified a cancer-causing carcinogen?).

Foodies also believe food exists to be enjoyed, not used. They understand that it is a gift, and that we are indeed fortunate to be creatures who can actually enjoy the process of keeping ourselves alive. Lovingly preparing food and savoring it with others – which is so clearly sacred to those who otherwise may not recognize a god – is a powerful, full-bodied way to return thanks our Creator for the blessing of food. For how can we fully appreciate the gifts of God’s creation if we are eating a human invention?

In addition, foodies believe that the effort that goes into producing food should be acknowledged and affirmed, either by their own labor, paying a few extra dollars, or a simple personal “thanks” to the farmer. Eating well means embracing an approach that respects what goes into our mouths and considers its universal impact and worth. Christians too should recognize that good stewardship of creation is reflected in fairly traded, environmentally-conscious, cruelty-free farming methods. Getting food cheaply and in great abundance is a privilege of Western society, and we would do well to consider its impact on our relationship with global neighbors as well as our own spiritual (not to mention physical) health.

This is what it means to eat “mindfully” – instead of just shoving fuel into our systems, we are thinking through and honoring the origins of our food, the people who prepared it and how they did so; we are really tasting what we put in our mouths, and returning thanks to God for its goodness.

The paradigmatic Christian meal is Holy Communion, also known as Eucharist. Eucharista is a Greek word which means “thanksgiving.” Its root word is charis, grace. The root of charis is char, which means joy. So at its verbal essence, the Lord’s Supper should be a meal grounded in joy, springing from grace, and overflowing with thanksgiving. There are people in upscale restaurants experiencing such meals all the time – and having a spiritual experience doing it. Do we ever come close to feeling this way at God’s table?

As the foodie movement goes mainstream, people of faith should be the first to embrace the opportunity to consciously connect the spirituality inherent in “Foodie-ism” with their own spiritual growth. By returning to simple, real, good-tasting food, eating becomes a pleasure, not a chore, and we in turn find ourselves more connected to the ultimate Provider. Being mindful of our choices in procuring, preparing and partaking will allow us to make even the simple act of eating into an opportunity to worship God, with our whole selves and our community.

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