Food for Body and Spirit

c. Pat Kenschaft

Adapted from Sermon Preached on November 28, 1999


Food seems effortless in this society now. I asked a class where their food comes from and somebody called out, "the supermarket!" The rest of the class nodded, enjoying my discomfort.

Never before in human history has getting food been so effortless. Many places it is not effortless now. In most places food is far more expensive in terms of average earnings than it is in the United States. And I suspect our unquestioning access to effortless, inexpensive food may change.

Where people have to worry about food, it becomes crucial to their religion. It isn't accident that Jesus' last supper is the most frequent ritual of Christian churches. Sharing food was a profoundly religious experience. But it isn't just Christianity.

Some years ago we had a Native American preacher in this pulpit. He told us that before his tribe would eat an animal, they would be friendly with it, enjoying it and getting to know it. Only then would they appreciate its meat properly and obtain the maximum spiritual benefit from killing and preparing the animal for consumption.

It was an odd idea to a Montclair congregation. But the idea of spiritual interaction with plant preparation is less foreign. Let me quote from Michael Pollan's wonderful book, Second Nature. "There is a mood that sometimes overtakes you in the garden, a form of consciousness, even, that feels like nothing so much as a waking dream. It is very different from the romantic's version of Zen's hollowed-out egolessness. The gardener doesn't lose himself, much less his body, in his particular reverie. For as much as you are being acted upon by everything around you, you are acting too, urging as well and listening, conducting that desultory conversation with nature that is gardening." [Delta Trade Paperback, 1991, p. 158-9]

More common in Montclair is the joy that many people find in preparing a festive meal for a gathered group of family or friends.

Preparing food and eating is both acting upon and acting. Our bodies are renewing their strength and we are interacting with the non-human world in an way essential for our life. If we are also interacting with other people as they eat, food can become the center of our social, as well as physical life. When suburbanites say, "Let's do lunch," it's about much more than physical eating.

It's all so easy in Montclair today, we tend not to think about the cosmic implications of what and how we eat. But I know a young woman who has dedicated her life to saving the environment who believes that the most crucial ethical decision that any American makes today is what they eat. What we, as citizens of the most powerful country on earth choose to feed our bodies has far-reaching consequences for the bodies and spirits of those far away who raise and prepare our food -- and for people in the future, if the earth remains habitable.

Today I want to share with you, out of years of my meditations, three suggested guidelines for making these all-important decisions, and then some misgivings about our current food supply. No Montclair resident can follow these three guidelines all the time, but as we try, we improve both our own health and the chances of humans surviving on this planet.

My first guideline is predictable for any of you who know me. Eat organic food whenever you can! I suspect this is known as Pat Kenschaft's idiosyncrasy, but it is more than that. Twenty-one years ago I was diagnosed to have an incurable disease, myasthenia gravis. My future looked pretty bleak. Indeed the present was precarious. Some of you may remember when I had to lie down after a church service before the exertion of driving home. Sometimes I lay down on the floor between the pews of this sanctuary because I didn't have the energy to go somewhere more comfortable. I have made a variety of lifestyle changes, but it was my organic garden that was the primary aid for helping me cope and live a reasonably active life. The organic food, the exercise, and the spiritual inspiration have all helped.

In 1995, 939 million pounds of pesticides were used in American agriculture. That's over three pounds of pesticide for each American citizen. Americans are making and eating a lot of chemicals. Both my parents majored in chemistry in college. Some of you remember John and Bertha Clark of Nutley. Shortly before she died in 1985 my mother said to me, "When we were young, we thought we were going to save people with chemistry. Now we wonder if we have destroyed them."

Whatever your definition of "organic" -- and it's not as clear as I once thought it was -- it's hard to eat organically in Montclair. It's very different in Massachusetts, Vermont, and Oregon, where inexpensive organic food is easily available. If you ask, however, you may find some organic food in many, if not most, of the stores in Montclair. Some have more than others. If we stimulate the market for organic food by buying it, the prices will come down here too, and we may have access to organic foods similar to that of Massachusetts, Vermont, and Oregon. Meanwhile, some Montclairians belong to CSA's (Community Shared Agriculture), sharing risks and yields with a specific organic farmer or with Genesis Farms.

My second guideline is, "Eat local food." None of the farmers in the Montclair farmers' market are organic farmers, but their produce is better for you than most produce in the supermarkets around here because it is more fresh and hasn't been subjected to as much after-harvest handling. It's also better for the environment not to use petroleum and other resources for transporting food long distances. You serve both yourself and future generations when you eat local food.

Furthermore, power over the world's food supply is becoming dangerously concentrated. I've been told there are only five transnational corporations that control most food, from seed supplies to retail marketing. The goal of these transnationals are profits, not the health of consumers or the sustainability of the environment. Family farms have been rapidly disappearing in the past two decades. The more you and I support local farmers, the more likely New Jersey farms will be able to supply food for New Jersey residents in the future.

My third guideline is to eat as low as you can on the food chain. Whatever your current eating habits, you can improve your own health and serve the world if you eat less red meat -- and less meat altogether. Dr. Richard Schwartz, author of Judaism and Vegetarianism is an Orthodox Jew who feels a strong religious calling to mobilize all spiritual people toward a vegetarian diet. He writes, "It is critical that people become more aware of the far-reaching consequences of animal agriculture in order to shift away from a diet that is bankrupting the United States and the world, crippling and killing 1.5 million Americans annually with chronic diseases, threatening the world's ecosystems, wasting scarce resources, contributing to world hunger, and cruelly exploiting animals." Dr. Schwartz points out that American livestock produce 80,000 pounds of manure a second and contribute greatly to all four major global warming gases, most notably methane.

Dr. Warren Leon, Deputy Director of the Union of Concerned Scientists, has computed that the animals eaten by the average American household generate 20 tons of manure a year. He suggests we should dump 20 tons of manure on each front yard once a year to remind Americans of the effect of their eating meat.

American beef eating is a major cause of deforestation in Latin America. Since 1970 more than a quarter of the Central American rain forests have been destroyed in order to raise cattle for our diet, about 55 square feet for each quarter pound hamburger. That's worth repeating. Each quarter pound of hamburger you eat cost about 55 square feet of rain forest, if it came from Latin America. If it was raised in this country, each pound of beef that you eat "costs" about 35 pounds of eroded topsoil, about 5200 gallons of water, and about 20,000 calories of fossil fuels. I'm going to give you a chance of remembering those numbers by repeating them. Each time a family of four eats a quarter pound of beef each, for a total of a pound of beef that was raised in this country, it caused about 35 pounds of topsoil to be eroded and consumed about 5200 gallons of water and about 20,000 calories of fossil fuel. [Richard Schwartz,,]

Eating chicken is far less damaging to the environment and your health than eating red meat. It takes 16 calories of grain to provide one calorie of beef for a human eater, but only 3 calories of grain for one calorie of chicken for a person. But chicken has problems. The March 1998 issue of Consumer Reports warned of unsanitary conditions in United States current processing of chicken. Seminella is increasing. Two to four million Americans now contract campylobacter each year from eating chicken, of which 250 die and thousands become paralyzed. Also, the wide use of antibiotics to fatten chickens is causing them to lose their effectiveness in combating disease. [Nucleus, Winter 1998-99, p. 2, published by the Union of Concerned Scientists]

An extensive study by the Union of Concerned Scientists reported in the fascinating book The Counsumer's Guide to Effective Environmental Choices [Three Rivers Press, 1999] reports that the second most important consumer activity to keep this planet fit for human habitation is to avoid meat and chicken. The third most important activity is to eat only organic food because the chemicals used in mass agriculture these days are extremely damaging. The most important activity of a consumer, as you may have already guessed, is to choosing your family vehicle. Buy one that consumes fuel and pollutes as little as you absolutely need. Walking or biking, of course, is even better.

It's really important to eat no more meat than you really need to be happy. If you begin eating less, you'll find you can happily eat still less. Fred and I finally went completely vegetarian last year after a twenty-year gradual weaning. I believe I have more pep and joy in my body than I ever have had before in my life, and my siblings agree. And I'll be 60 next spring!

Organic, local, and low on the food chain are good, if difficult, guidelines, but there are other problems lurking in our food supply.

One is similar to the chicken problems I already mentioned. Many dairy products come from cows that have been fattened with hormones and fed antibiotics so they can be kept in less healthy, even filthy surroundings. Fortunately, in this market we can drink Farmland milk, which says on its cartons, "No hormones added. No antibiotics." This labeling, however, is in jeopardy. Some states have passed laws or regulations saying that labels describing how foods have been raised may not appear on the food's containers.

An even newer hazard to our food supply is the introduction of genetically engineered foods, that is, food in which genes from one species are crossed with genes of another. We're not talking about tigers mating with lions or crossing different types of greens, but introducing, for example, fish genes into tomatoes. This makes me uneasy. It may be, as some claim, harmless, but if they really believe that, they should be willing to label genetically engineered foods, so those of us who are skeptical can avoid them. This is not currently the case. Last year 44% of American soy products and 36% of our corn, both pervasive in prepared foods, were genetically engineered. And they are not labeled. I'm sure everyone in this room has eaten genetically engineered food without knowing it.

A butcher in France claims his customers keep saying, "Let the Americans play with food and technology. Here, we just won't buy it." In the European Union supermarkets must label foods that are genetically engineered. Since most Europeans won't buy genetically engineered food, by this past May seven European supermarket chains had announced they will not sell "genetically modified" food. [Lancelet, 353, 9167, 20, 5/99,] Our secretary of agriculture has warned that the "war over food" could ruin America's relationship with Europe.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court in India has upheld a ban on testing genetically modified crops in that country. Activists in India have set fire to fields of crops suspected of being used for testing, which is greater sacrifice in India than England. [ibid]

In late July, Lord Peter Melchett, a hereditary lord in the British Parliament was arrested for destroying a genetically engineered crop of a neighbor, whose pollen he fears could damage his own food crops. It was the first time a British lord had been thrown in jail for political protest. He had dozens of companions. [Independent of London, 8/1/99] They were promptly freed on bail, but the continuing European and Asian protests against the United States policy of forcing genetically engineered food upon worried people elsewhere reminds me of the racial protests here in the 1960's. But this is an international issue, protesting our country's policies with remarkably little media coverage here.

A coalition of American scientists and religious leaders have filed a suit against the federal government insisting that it should require genetically engineered foods to be labeled. Scientific experiments on any species require several generations for plausible conclusions about their safety, and genetically engineered foods are an innovation of the 1990's. We have no clue as to their impact on the grandchildren of our preschoolers who have been eating them. Many religious groups believe that what a person eats has vital religious implications, so slipping unannounced genes into traditional foods violates their religious beliefs. It violates mine, too, because I believe that individuals should have choices about the care of their own bodies. [News Flash! H.R. 3377 has been introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives to require labels on foods with genetically engineered ingredients. Currently, the FDA does not require labels unless the genes introduced in the food contain allergens or substantially change the nutritional content.]

If you agree with me that we should have choices about our bodies, I hope you were one of the 270,000 American citizens who wrote last year to the United States Department of Agriculture in protest of the so-called "organic standards." Alas, you may not have known of this threat to American food. Our media hardly mentioned the proposed denial of American's freedom to eat what they consider to be safe food. The United States Department of Agriculture proposed regulations defining its meaning of "organic standards" and prohibiting others from making different standards and labeling them as different. Our Secretary of Agriculture kept saying, "We cannot have more than one standard of food safety in this country." However, his standards of so-called "organic" foods would include virtually everything now on our supermarket shelves. Even without media coverage, the outcry was so great, far greater than has ever been raised before against our Department of Agriculture, that it withdrew those standards and are preparing others. This time we will have only 45 days to respond. Nationwide, people who care about safe food supplies are trying to mobilize for those brief 45 days. If you want to be on my list, let me know.

I believe my own health has been radically improved by shifting away from the Standard American Diet (which some called SAD -- Standard American Diet), and I invite you to join me in preserving the rights of those who believe that individual families should have a choice about what they eat in a world where the available foods are straying farther and farther from the foods that sustained our species for its first million years. I also invite you to meditate, think, and pray -- if you pray -- about the foods that enter your body.

Although eating is far easier and cheaper in Montclair today than in most times and places, it may not be safer. What and how we eat affects the investors who make money from chemicals, machinery and genetic engineering, the farmers who take risks to provide our food, the workers -- including migrant workers -- who labor for it, and the many truck drivers and retail employees who deliver it to us. I believe that our choice of food is one of the most basic expressions of our religious values. And whatever our choices, I think it's a good idea to sing thanks for our abundant food more often than just at Thanksgiving.



Closing words: Go now in faith, hope, and love -- faith that you too can eat food in such a way as to be directly nourished by the Divine, hope that humans and other Earthlings will survive this dangerous era, and love for our entire human family -- past, present and future.



A Personal Story

Pat Kenschaft


In 1971 I moved back into my parents' home in Nutley with my two little children. Feelings of failure were high in my psyche, but my parents' minister helped my ego by inviting me to be a discussion leader in a series of ten programs about religion co-sponsored by the Congregational Church, the Methodist Church, the Roman Catholic Church and the Jewish synagogue of Nutley. For an hour each Wednesday evening about 150 people from these and other Nutley religions would listen to a Drew University theologian describe the religion of the evening. For a second hour we divided into ten discussion groups of about 15 people each carefully distributed among the religious communities represented in the larger group.

The ten of us who were group leaders were given an excellent preparation course before the main program. The discussions were congenial and animated. The group obviously liked me, but was baffled by my apparent lack of firm belief. When in the eighth week I began to question Jewish theology with the same obvious doubts to which I had subjected Protestant and Catholic beliefs, the entire group suddenly turned on me. Their frustration was friendly, but very curious. "What do you believe in? What do you care about?"

After a slight pause I heard myself say, "I care very much that there be people on this earth a hundred years from now. I don't know why, but I want very much for human beings to continue. I think if we make it through the next century, we'll be here for a long time. But I'm worried about this century."

I think I may have been as surprised as they were, but I realized it was true. Wanting people to survive on this planet is the bedrock of my religion. I believe that God wants us to take care of each other and our non-human companions on this chunk of celestial matter well enough so that we don't commit species suicide. Unfortunately, we are committing species murder at an ever-increasing rate.

There are people I respect who have studied this matter more deeply than I who believe it is too late. They think we have already made choices that will soom end our species and many others. But I keep hoping. I want people to survive. I want at least some of the children in daycare in other parts of this building and world to live to a happy old age. I know it may not happen, but that wish is a major part of what makes me tick.