Since the 1970’s, Wendell Berry has prophetically spoken out against the corporatization and monopolization of the U.S. agricultural system. He writes, “Critical questions are being asked of our whole country: are we, or are we not, going to take proper care of our land, our country? And do we, or do we not, believe in a democratic distribution of usable property? At present, these questions are being answered in the negative.” Throughout the decades, Berry has decried the use of chemicals and the rapid loss of small family farms while passionately arguing for the benefit of diversified farms with farmers who are deeply knowledgeable of and intimate with the land.
Berry’s criticisms of so-called big agriculture and enthusiasm for local farming has gained a significant following over time, such that today a wealth of books, magazines, and documentaries warn of the pernicious effects of big ag on the health of people’s bodies, of the ecosystems sustaining food production, and of rural society. The looming shadow of the industrial agricultural system has urged many people to advocate for local and organic food and small farms. More and more people are buying organic, joining CSA farms (community-supported agriculture), or even going into farming themselves. All of this cultural movement can be classified under the term the “food movement” or the “local foods movement.”
In the wake of this cultural shift, farm churches and dinner churches are starting to emerge in the religious landscape. It is a poignant question to ask whether or not these food-focused churches are developing in response to or in the context of the local foods movement. During my research on farm and dinner churches, I asked the pastors of these churches whether they saw their church as being related to the local foods movement.
The answer I received was generally a shrug and a “well, not really.” Much to my surprise, none of the pastors cited a food documentary or a book as the catalyst for beginning their food-based ministry. Neither did they express a conviction that modern day agricultural systems are in vast need of reform. Nor, even, did the pastors mention that a commitment to eating locally and sustainably is a strong personal ethic. It seemed that the local foods movement has not been a direct inspiration in the rise of farm and dinner churches.
This said, a number of the pastors displayed open awareness of the food movement and its effect on their communities. One pastor in particular calls her dinner church “farm-to-table,” a common phrase in the food movement which usually indicates a direct relationship between the farmer and the consumer with no middle men in between. Before every worship service, the pastor buys freshly baked bread from the locally owned bakery and buys ingredients for soup at the neighborhood grocery store. She attempts to make soups that reflect the seasonal availability of produce, and she encourages the congregants to patronize local restaurants, farmers’ markets, and businesses.
These practices reflect an awareness of and a participation in the culture of the food movement. This pastor in particular engages the value of the food movement of investing in one’s local community for economic reasons, but also for the sake of building relationships and a sense of community in her town.
The pastor at the farm church also holds values that reflect those of the food movement. He fully affirms the life-giving properties of taking people outside and letting them grow food with their own hands. This resonates with the back-to-the-land ethic found in the food movement, in which many people are turning to gardening and backyard farming (chickens, anybody?) as a way to slow life down and to connect with the earth.
Like the countercultural threads of the food movement, the folks at the farm church are pushing against the cultural trends that separate people from the land and concentrate the knowledge of farming in the hands of a few. They are also trying to address issues of hunger in their community, an issue they see as a matter of justice. Does this mean, then, that the farm church is a part of the food movement? Well, they certainly aren’t about to take on big ag in their hometown, and they are not trying to transform the agricultural market. This said, they seem to have inherited and put into practice certain values of the food movement.
An additional clue to the identity of these farm and dinner churches can be found on their websites—the language regarding food is actually quite religious. On the websites are phrases like “worship around the table,” “harvesting the gifts of Creation,” and “breaking bread together.” Food is referenced clearly, but it is in the context of having religious properties. This phrasing indicates that these churches see themselves as churches that use food, not ideological organizations fighting to change the agricultural system.
My impression from the interviews is that the pastors of these farm and dinner churches were not directly inspired by the food movement itself to create a food-focused church. Instead, when imagining what kind of church they hoped to create with others, they found that food offers unique, theologically relevant, and immediately meaningful opportunities for ministry.
Are farm and dinner churches a direct product of the local foods movement? Not really, at least not in the minds of the pastors who started them. Nevertheless, these food-focused churches did not occur in a vacuum. Whether consciously or unconsciously in the minds of the pastors, it seems the principles of the food movement like intentional eating, investing in the local community, and connecting more deeply with this earthly life have inspired these churches to see food as a viable means to conduct Christian ministry.
Whether from a religious perspective or not, food is core to our lives. At a fundamental level, food impacts the very nature of what it means to be human. Both the food movement and food-focused churches realize this earthly truth and are seeking ways to make the meanings of food come alive in our daily rituals and societal habits. Hopefully this growing food consciousness will lead us all towards a healthier relationship with each other and with the planet.