One of Jesus’s greatest imperatives to his followers was for them to care for the poor and to feed the hungry. Many Christians over the centuries have tried to follow Jesus’s mandate, serving in food kitchens and building shelters to feed and house the poor. In today’s industrial society, a new problem has appeared that affects the health of many of the poor. In many poor neighborhoods in the cities and towns, the poor have no access to healthy fruits and vegetables, and they wind up eating cheap and plentiful junk food. This has led to a higher incidence of obesity, diabetes, and heart problems in many poor communities. To try to give poor people more access to healthier foods, Christians are looking to the urban farming movement for possible solutions.
Episcopalian Sara Miles wrote a wonderful book called Take This Bread that chronicles her path to becoming a Christian and describe her journey in creating a food pantry in her church to serve the poor in the Potrero Hill area in San Francisco. Miles sees two reasons why the poor have little access to healthy foods in her area. One, poorer neighborhoods tend not to have grocery stores that sell healthier foods. Second, housing costs and apartment rents are so high, minimum wage workers are contributing a high percentage of their wages to cover the rent, leaving them little left for food. Since healthy foods are more expensive than junk food, the poor often opt to pay for the less expensive food. Sara Miles wrote of the consequence of this situation:
Surrounded by abundance, poor people had trouble buying food that really nourished them. Fat was cheap and filling, vegetables were complicated and scarce, so salt, grease, and sugar reigned. Obese kids ate corn chips and soda for breakfast; ninety-nine-cent hamburgers and soda for lunch; fries and soda for dinner- with liberal helpings of candy, potato chips, and soda in between. Old people crippled by diabetes sat in front of their televisions and ate ramen noodles, four packs for a dollar. Teenage moms gave their babies orange soda and their toddlers government cheese. “You know,” Anne told me, “well-fed people like to say, ‘Oh, if you’re hungry enough, you’ll eat anything.’ That’s probably true, at some point. But it’s not good for people. It’s wrong.”
Many Christian activists who serve the poor have been trying to resolve this problem. One of the ways in which some Christian groups have tried to give poor people healthy and fresh food has been to take some ideas of the Urban Farming movement. Over the past few years, many people who live in the city have been converting empty lots and rooftops into urban farms and community gardens to grow vegetables and fruits. With the financial and environments cost of shipping fresh fruits and vegetables increasing, some people feel that urban farming is a way to cut transportation costs by growing vegetables and fruits locally.
Many Christian groups who have served the poor have tried these ideas in their area to help give poor people greater access to healthy foods. One example of this is in Raleigh, North Carolina, where Inter-Faith Food Shuttle has been turning vacant lots into farms and gardens to build a more food secure, healthy community. These gardens give poor in Southeast Raleigh access to fresh produce and gives them the income for self-sufficiency. Here is a youtube video of the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle.
The Simple Way community in the Kensington neighborhood of the Northside of Philadelphia are creating farms and green houses in empty lots and rooftops to address hunger and malnutrition in their community. The Simple Way was founded by Shane Claiborne and a group of Christian activists to live with and to serve the poor and the marginalized in the neighborhoods and to fight for social justice causes. Here is a youtube video of their efforts at urban farming.
One of the oldest groups that have adopted the urban farming model is the Catholic Worker. Founded in the 1930s by Catholic radicals Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, the Catholic Worker aimed to practice the Works of Mercy that is based on Matthew 25:31-40. Thus the Catholic Workers sheltered homeless people in Catholic Worker homes, feed the poor, and protest war and social injustice. One of Peter Maurin’s fondest wishes was to create Catholic Worker farms to get people closer to the land. Maurin felt that the factories of the industrial society were dehumanizing, and thought that people would be able to regain a bit of their humanity by working on farms.
As the Catholic Worker movement has evolved over time, many of the urban Catholic Worker homes have adopted urban farming techniques, adopting Peter Maurin’s “Green” principles to the 21st Century. Eric Anglada wrote a blog for the Jesus Radicals titled The Greening of the Catholic Worker where he stated:
Today, we are seeing a veritable resurgence of the ideas of Peter Maurin and his “Green Revolution.” …And for all of Maurin’s skepticism regarding the city, there is some irony in the fact that even many of the city houses are engaged in important “green” practices.
Here in the Midwest, I can hardly think of an urban house that isn’t doing at least some of the following: composting, gardening, dumpster-diving healthy food, creating relationships with food co-ops to get cast-offs instead of relying solely on donated processed foods from food banks, implementing permaculture, using solar panels for energy, using composting toilets, raising chickens, reading Wendell Berry, sharing skills in practical crafts, showing pertinent films such as Food, Inc., and holding roundtable discussions on sustainable living. A member of an urban house who recently visited told of the house’s Thanksgiving dinner, which consisted solely of local foods.
Traveling to another urban house of hospitality recently, I was impressed that they keep free-range chickens, have converted their entire yard into no-till garden beds, receive composted manure from the local zoo, make available to their breakfast guests healthy produce and bread (which they transport by bike) from the local grocery store, use non-toxic cleaning agents, and serve their guests four mornings a week on real plates, instead of plastic. All of this is in addition to their making accessible showers to the homeless four days a week, hosting meals for anyone five days a week, and ministering to addicts and prostitutes on the street — all done with a firm foundation of prayer and reflection. As impressive as this community is, they are not the exception. Some in the city have embraced the “Green Revolution” so much that they practice urban farming (Nashville comes to mind).
Here is a partial list of websites of Catholic Worker Farms:
The Appalachian Catholic Worker Farm in Spencer, West Virginia
The Earth Abides Catholic Worker Farm in Calaveras County, California
The Catholic Worker Farm near London, England
The Little Flower Catholic Worker Farm in Trevilians, Virginia
Here is a youtube description of the Catholic Worker Movement
Here is a youtube video of Fiacre Gardens, a Catholic Worker microfarm
I’ll end this blog with some passages from the Bible about God’s love of the poor.
Blessed are those whose help is the God of Jacob,
whose hope is in the Lord their God.
He is the Maker of heaven and earth,
the sea, and everything in them—
he remains faithful forever.
He upholds the cause of the oppressed
and gives food to the hungry.
The Lord sets prisoners free,
the Lord gives sight to the blind,
the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down,
the Lord loves the righteous.
The Lord watches over the foreigner
and sustains the fatherless and the widow,
but he frustrates the ways of the wicked.
“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness will go before you,
and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.
Then you will call, and the Lord will answer;
you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.
“If you do away with the yoke of oppression,
with the pointing finger and malicious talk,
and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
and your night will become like the noonday.
Then Jesus said to his host, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the holy angels with Him, then He will sit on the throne of His glory. All the nations will be gathered before Him, and He will separate them one from another, as a shepherd divides his sheep from the goats. And He will set the sheep on His right hand, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on His right hand, ‘Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me.’
“Then the righteous will answer Him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You drink? When did we see You a stranger and take You in, or naked and clothe You? Or when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ And the King will answer and say to them, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.’
Here are some links about information on urban farming and poverty:
Urban Agriculture for Sustainable Poverty Alleviation and Food Security by Daniel Hoornweg and Paul Munro-Faure
Fighting Poverty and Hunger: What role for urban agriculture? by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
Articles from Mother Earth News magazine on urban farming:
Guide to Urban Homesteading by Rachel Kaplan
Urban Roots: Community Gardens Making a New Detroit by Jennifer Kongs
Urban Farms Bike Tour = Sunday Fun Day Adventure by Jennifer Kongs
A youtube video of Detroit working on a grassroots strategy to rejuvenate their city with urban farming
Here is a youtube video of the 2nd National Catholic Worker Farm Gathering in 2013. Catholic Worker Farmers hope for Peter Maurin’s vision of the “Green Revolution” (Christian peasants running organic farms) to be more fully realized