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Society is Starving: What Religion Taught Me About Food

3 Jul 2014

Within and beyond my work at the William Temple Foundation, I am an active member of the interfaith movement in the UK and Europe. And there are many, many reasons why I love this work. But I have a guilty admission; one of these reasons is the food! Religious communities can be fantastically hospitable, from sangar at Sikh gurdwaras, to the feast of a Shabbat dinner, I have happily munched my way through numerous interfaith encounters. Recently the subject of food in religion has been on my mind for the Islamic month of fasting, Ramadan began last weekend. It is a very special time for many Muslims; a time of reflection, spiritual renewal, and in my experience, delicious communal iftars (evening meals) at the breaking of the fast each day.

In the religious context, food and community are inextricably linked. As a Church of England Priest recently reminded, it is no surprise that eating and drinking is at the heart of the Christian liturgy. The bread and the wine of Christian worship, whilst food for the soul rather than nourishment for the body, demonstrate the power of sharing and eating together.

In the interfaith context food offers a handy stating point, as something which we can all discuss from our differing perspectives, thereby offering a space from which further discussions might grow. It is also an opportunity for giving, receiving, and sharing, thereby developing bonds of trust from the start. As such, members of British Muslim communities have developed all sorts of ways for none-Muslims to experience and understand their fasting, and (most excitingly for a foodie like me) to share in the breaking of the fast. One example is a project called Dine@Mine, started by one of my closest friends with the aim of matching Muslims who are eager to share their hospitality, with non-Muslims keen to learn more about Ramadan.

But whilst food can be a great source of celebration for many faith groups, in recent months, it has also been a great cause of concern. Food has become the junction where religion and politics meets. Responding to the dire needs of their communities, faith groups up and down the country have set up food banks. Whilst these projects might be seen as another example of the hospitality of faith groups, food banks rarely exist for the purpose of sharing communally; of eating and drinking and being together. For how can they? The rise of food poverty in Britain is a stark reminder of the most basic need of food. And what becomes clear is how poverty is not a mere matter of physical deprivation, but that it also robs basic dignities, diminishes spirituality, and limits the ability to be social (with inevitable impacts on mental wellbeing).

The invaluable social capital of faith-based organisations is undoubtedly filling vital welfare gaps. And for all we might celebrate these chances for outreach and service, as my William Temple Foundation colleague Chris Baker recently pointed out, the success of such programmes may come at the dangerous cost of normalising food banks. In doing so, we risk normalising the notion that the state no longer exists to assist in the most basic needs of its citizens.

Further, in responding to food poverty there is the risk that religious hospitality becomes a culture of giving, rather than a culture of sharing. And there is, of course, a distinct difference between the two. Unlike giving, which implies a one-way transfer, sharing is imbued with commonality, commitment and equality. In a society that has more than enough to go around, gaping inequalities risk starving us of more than just physical nourishment.

Charlotte Dando is Assistant Director for Communications & Development at William Temple Foundation

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1 Comment


03/07/2014 11:32

Thanks Charlotte.. some good points here.. Food sharing can be great as a mechanism for bridging and bonding social capital. But we need to be realistic that it can also be an exclusionary boundary marking device. Dietary regulations such as kosher, halal, and Hindu vegetarianism often mark the ritual purity of the in-group. For example I was having a bar meal the other week in a small village hotel in Speyside when a group of about 20 evidently orthodox (but not Hasidic) Jewish men came into the restaurant. (I speculate they may have been a delegation from the Israeli whisky importers association on a business trip.) They went into a side room and meticulously prepared the table, covering it with transparent plastic sheeting. Eventually food was served.. but from what I observed it appeared to be individually plated (airline style meals) presumably ordered in from a kosher outside catering firm. It would have been a brave Scot or English visitor who would have dared to enter that room in an effort to befriend or interact with this group of people.

Of course there are other examples of bariers around the meal table, such as gender segregation at meal times in some communities, or the exclusion from the Lord’s table of children or divorcees in some Christian communities.

It clearly isn’t a straightforward issue. Indeed in interfaith work Christians wishing to offer hospitality and sharing food may be put at a disadvantage, or embarrassed, or decide they need to make clumsy adjustments to menus. New Testament based theology that God has declared all types of food clean and that external ritual purity is a nonsense is fundamentally challenging to many religious systems. And in church food banks in multi-faith areas there needs to be some sensitivity. In many ways it’s not a big deal when you are familiar with the ground rules, and there are lots of positives about eating together. But sometimes it means sensitive negotiations on all sides – from people who really cannot bear the chili heat of some spicy dishes to explaining why some desserts containing gelatin are not considered halal by many Muslims.

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