New: Christians and Food Waste: Slowing Down and Savoring God’s Gifts

(Originally published in Presbyterians Today, July/August 2019, 8.)

My grandmother was a farm wife during the dust bowl of the Depression. For the rest of her life, she was meticulous about not wasting food. She wouldn’t use a vegetable peeler on potatoes or carrots because she could remove less peel using a knife.

One of the first kitchen tools my mother taught me to use was a rubber scraper. She learned from her mother how to get every morsel of food out of a bowl, pan or jar.

I have seven rubber scrapers in a large jar beside my stove, so I can use the right one for each food container. I save and reuse even small amounts of leftovers, and I study our fridge frequently to make sure we are eating everything before it goes bad. I am so grateful Seattle has city-wide composting. The food I do need to throw away is transformed into rich compost with little effort on my part and a big benefit to Seattle’s landfill.

My motivation lies primarily in the precious and finite resources used to grow and transport food. My meticulousness about food waste, inherited from my mother and grandmother, is a significant spiritual practice these days. Christians can see the challenge of food waste – so common in the news today – in  the bigger picture of food as a gift from God and mealtimes as a way for people to gather.

A 2018 USDA study showed that Americans waste an average of a pound of food a day. According to EPA figures, food waste is the single largest component — 20.5 percent — of waste at U.S. landfills. Food that rots in landfills produces a significant amount of methane, a more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, so food waste contributes significantly to climate change.

Dana Gunders, a food-waste expert for the Natural Resources Defense Council, recently authored the report, “Wasted: How America Is Losing Up to 40 Percent of its Food from Farm to Fork to Landfill.” She describes a chain of waste that begins the moment a seed is planted.

Gunders’s statistics are painful to read. Agriculture consumes 10 percent of the U.S. energy supply, 80 percent of all fresh water, and 50 percent of land resources, while leaving a residue of pesticides and other chemicals in the soil. And then we waste so much of it? In effect, we are choosing to load 40 percent of it on a truck, and drive it to a landfill using fossil fuel, where the decomposing food creates methane and further pollutes our precious earth.

Food is a significant theme in the Bible from beginning to end. Adam and Eve are invited to eat the fruit of all the trees in the garden except one (Gen 2:15-17), and heaven is portrayed as a banquet (Is 25:6). Jesus ate with the outcasts of his society (Mk 2:15, LK 15:1-2), and after the resurrection, he fixed fish for his disciples on a beach (Jn 21:1-14).

Psalm 104 presents a vivid picture God’s presence in the food chain. God is active in every aspect of the food we eat: soil, seeds, sun, rain, the growth of plants and fruit trees, and the birth and life of animals. God cares about the plants and the animals, as well as the people who plant, grow, harvest, ship and sell our food (Ps 36:6). Understanding God’s care for our food production process can motivate us to tread lightly as we consume food: conserving, composting, and sharing generously.

We know that God cares about the hungry (Is 58:10, Matt 25:34-40). One of the huge tragedies of food waste is that the earth produces enough food for everyone, yet some are hungry.

Others of us, of course, are the opposite of hungry. One of my strategies to avoid wasting food is to eat it. I was raised to clean up my plate, and I can’t seem to stop doing that. Yet I struggle to maintain a healthy weight. Am I sometimes wasting food by eating it?

And do we sometimes waste food by eating on the run? Many of us eat too quickly to savor each bite, to enjoy the complexity of flavor designed by our Creator and nurtured by farm workers. We eat alone, when Jesus enjoyed table fellowship.

For Christians, all the talk about food waste is a call to slow down and consider how to treat food as a precious gift from God – to be stewarded wisely, received gratefully, enjoyed in the company of others, and shared with the hungry.