By Jess Rigel, 2014 Eco-Steward
It’s been a while since I was blessed to travel to Gainesville to participate with the Eco-Stewards in a week of education, communion with nature and overall bliss. But since then, I’ve been pretty busy. Too busy in fact, to reflect much on how that trip helped shape my values around the sacred nature of earth care, and particularly, how it challenged my views surrounding food justice issues. As a Seminarian, I have spent the past several months learning and reflecting on academic aspects of theology, not necessarily practical ones. And though I am taking a class next semester focused on Food and Scripture (!!!), most of my theology classes deal little with land and food issues, if they do so at all.
However, during my Christmas break, I was given the opportunity to do some service work with my mother. My parents live in Florida, in a county a few hours south of Gainesville that is known for its food insecurity. My mother volunteers once a week with the local school district, packing bags of non-perishable food for each school’s homeless youth. Though these youth usually have shelter of some sort, it’s not a home, but rather a hotel, or a temporary stint in a relative’s house; and so on weekends, they receive supplemental food when the Federal school lunch and breakfast programs aren’t available to them.
For a few hours, I helped my mother stuff bags with 2 breakfasts, 2 main meals, fruit, and 2 snacks—most of which, because they must be both non-perishable and kid-friendly, have little to no nutritional value. I was helping to feed the working poor—those most traditionally vulnerable to diabetes, hypertension, and stroke—with Pop-Tarts, sugar cereal, fruit in syrup, and sodium-laden Ramen dinners. While I am not a food snob, and while I know any food is better than no food, I also know through the thoughtfulness of the Eco-Stewards Gainesville Program, that another, better means of providing food for hungry people is possible.
Our trip to the Gainesville Catholic Worker Hospitality House exemplified how programs attempting to thwart food insecurity can provide not just food, but nourishment, in a way that is community-focused, nutritionally-dense, and ecologically- sustainable. As our host and fellow Eco-Steward Daniel Loya explained, folks in Gainesville aren’t calorie-deficient—there are plenty of feeding programs throughout the city—they are nutrient deficient. Through partnering with local farms and home-cooking multiple meals a day, as well as serving, hosting, and sharing those meals with all who show up hungry for food and community, Daniel and his fellow Catholic Workers and volunteers are directly fulfilling Christ’s call to feed His sheep, as well as gaining strong relationships with those they serve, and with one another.
Another “feeding” program that focused on health and nutrition that we were blessed to visit in Gainesville was through the Alachua County School District. We visited a local elementary school, where we not only shared a nutritious and delicious lunch, but also learned about how the school has busied itself implementing both a USDA Farm to School Grant as well as their Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program. We were told about how students have been exposed to new varieties of vegetables, such as “atomic red” and “purple dragon” carrots, and how through such exposure, they’re consuming more vegetables. We also learned about how the Alachua County School District is sponsoring family events, to get parents and grandparents on board about nutrition. The Alachua County Farm to School program even has a Farm to School Work Hub through Loften High School that gives students agricultural skills and lets them share the produce they grow with their fellow students through the school lunch program!
While neither of these programs addresses all the links between hunger and the empty calories that lead to health problems among too many of our nation’s citizens, they are drawing attention to the dichotomies of many well-intentioned food service programs, and making a positive, tangible difference in the Gainesville community. Furthermore, both the Gainesville Catholic Worker House of Hospitality and the Alachua County Farm to School program serve as beacons to other communities—giving us hope that we might model them and best meet the needs of the hungry who surround us, seen and unseen, no matter where we live.