This is the first set of notes from a class session I did on current food issues and trying to live a somewhat simpler lifestyle.
There is a children’s novel by Lois Lowry that is set during World War II, in Denmark. In one of the opening scenes, the mother is out so her daughter starts the potatoes for dinner. That’s not the main event of the opening chapter, it’s just what she’s doing; but in the midst of getting into the rest of the story, you suddenly realize: she’s cooking potatoes for dinner, and that’s all they’re going to have, potatoes, because that’s what people had to eat for dinner during World War II in Denmark. (Note: I don't have a copy of Number the Stars here and I may have misremembered the scene or where it was in the book. If so, I apologize to Lois Lowry.)
And I’m sure many of you would be able to contribute similar scenes from your own lives, from growing up with many brothers and sisters during hard times, or from living overseas, or from raising large families yourselves and surviving job losses, bad years on the farm, and other difficulties. Some of you have seen food supply issues from a farmer’s point of view. Some of you have studied business, economics, and world hunger issues in depth; some of you have seen third-world poverty up close. Many of you have also been members of the Mennonite faith community for all or most of your lives, and you’ve heard about and practiced simple living in one way or another for years.
So I have very little to tell you about the why or how of eating potatoes, or lentils, or rice. Most of you should assume that you know more about that than I do. Many of you also understand better than I do why world food prices are going up, why people in the poorest countries are becoming violent over their lack of food, and why celery here suddenly costs $2.69 a bunch.
But I will try to give you a bit of background on my own interest in food and a simpler lifestyle, and our current concerns around the world food situation; and also some possible suggestions for action that I’ve drawn from various places; then I’ll open things up for discussion.
I grew up in a family where eating was always of interest, but where the cooking was as likely to be frozen meat pies as roast chicken. My mother loved to bake, but she was busy and found putting dinner on the table tedious. She cooked liver, mainly because my father liked it, and made Weight Watchers desserts in the blender, and cooked turnips and beet tops because they were frugal and nutritious; and we ate it because we were expected, if not always to clean our plates, to at least eat some of whatever we didn’t like so much. At least it worked for me; my sister rebelled and for years wouldn’t eat any vegetables besides frozen peas and corn.
My grandmother was a good cook in the Food That Really Schmecks tradition, until too much fried food got both her and Grandpa into trouble and they made a radical switch to eating salads. She still liked to talk about food, though, and her interest in the old recipes also helped me develop an interest in use-what-you-have cooking. I spent a lot of my teens and early adult years cooking at home, working in camp kitchens, and experimenting with vegetarian food while I lived on my own. I always liked to read cookbooks, especially ones that focused on more-with-less food; some of the books that I used the most then included the Goldbeck’s Short Order Cookbook, Tassajara Cooking, and the More with Less Cookbook. I also had a copy of Louise Newton’s Good Recipes for Hard Times, and I wish I still had that because it’s gotten very hard to find and it had some great simple meal ideas in it. When Mr. Fixit and I were first engaged and he was living in an apartment, I got him a copy of The Urban Peasant, and we still use that.
When we were first married, the economy was doing a bit of a turnaround after the boom of the late ‘80’s; wedding rings were cheap but broccoli got to be expensive. My new favourite books became the three Tightwad Gazette guides to frugality, and they helped pull us through some tight years. We realized that we did have quite a few good frugal-living skills already and that we had absorbed a lot from our parents and grandparents. Mr. Fixit was good at car mechanics, home fixups, electronics, and had a good sense of where our money was going. My particular talents included improvising in the kitchen, creative yard saling, and being able to overlook some things that others would fuss over—I’m not a very visual person so whether or not our house was big or small or totally redecorated or not didn’t bother me.
After our first child was born, I became very involved with our neighbourhood association and the community centre where we ran our programs. They sent me for training as a community nutrition worker, which is a program that is still going on. CNWS are what they call peer support workers, people that are trained to promote nutrition, run food programs, start collective kitchens and so on. It didn’t end up being a job that I continued for pay, but I did continue to read and write about frugal food and nutrition, especially when I started blogging a few years ago. Because I’m in touch so frequently with other parents who also think and talk a lot about these issues and who live on a single income as we do, it sometimes surprises me to realize that our family is a bit out of the mainstream when it comes to things like eating regular meals at home, shopping and cooking together, and in some of the other ways we get by, like yardsaling and not having cable T.V. It just feels kind of normal to us. Besides, I know we’re not the most frugal people around, either; we do eat meat regularly, although we used to cook mostly vegetarian; we buy chips and pop sometimes, and frozen pizzas. Compared to some people I know who drop every chicken carcass in the stockpot almost before the plates have been cleared, I feel like I haven’t really earned my simple living merit badge yet. But we’ll get into comparing and legalism later on.
So, to go back a bit—we survived the high food prices of the early ‘90’s, but since then, even though our family has grown to five, we’ve managed to keep our food budget pretty steady up until this year. For over 15 years we kept track of every grocery receipt, and we knew exactly how much money we needed to live on. When we set out our budget for this year, we decided to relax our record keeping and not worry so much about what we spent, because we figured by this time we pretty much had it down. And wouldn’t you know, this is the year our grocery trips suddenly started costing thirty, forty, fifty dollars more, every time. And all of a sudden even going out for burgers started to empty our wallet; our energy bill has gone up. Obviously something was up, and the newspaper stories about rising prices confirmed that we are in the middle of a world food and energy crisis that only seems to be getting worse.
The commonly-quoted reasons for the rise in food prices seem to be the cost of oil; the increasing demand for more meat and other luxury foods in India and China; and the crops-used-for-ethanol issue; but there's also much larger question about how the price of commodities has been affected by bad economic policies, by too many middlemen, by big business decisions that have affected the whole food industry. I'm still working my way through a long Globe and Mail article about Canadian farmers, middlemen and the stock market, trying to understand how what’s happened in the stock market affects the price of celery here or rice in the Philippines. The short answer (as I understand it) is that the trading rules changed to allow investors to speculate on food futures as they did on other things like oil, and that’s messed things up because food doesn’t work the same way as other commodities.
Strangely enough, in some ways food is scarce and in other ways it’s cheap, valueless, a throwaway commodity that’s taking over our landfills and filling the air with methane gas. In developed countries, we still have so much food that we don’t know what to do with it or how to dispose of it—so even edible food becomes just more garbage. It’s something about our super-sized food culture; there’s also the problem that a lot of people have forgotten how to eat, nobody’s home to cook anyway, and they end up grabbing fast food way too often.
But since I can’t do much about the stock market or a lot of those other things, my questions and concerns come back to some of the more basic and personal ones:
1. How can we continue to feed our family in the same way, on the same budget we always have; or do we have to rethink some of our shopping habits and food attitudes in order to survive these new challenges? As we said last week about oil prices—do we hear that food prices will be going DOWN anytime soon?
2. How can I communicate those concerns to my children, who, in spite of my lessons and lectures on cleaning the plate or at least “trying some of it,” still don’t think they should have to eat hot cereal, casseroles, leftovers, or lentil soup?
“When I was a child, my mother said to me,
‘Clean the plate, because children are starving in Europe….’
So I would clean the plate, four, five, six times a day.
Because somehow I felt that that would keep the children from starving in Europe.
But I was wrong. They kept starving. And I got fat.”—Allan Sherman
We cannot emphasize guilt or do the Allan Sherman thing, and expect that to be enough, or for our children to understand. We can say it, but they don’t get it any more than Sherman did.
3. How do I keep my focus on God Himself and on my obedience to Him, rather than striving for simplicity for its own sake, or getting into legalism over what we buy or where it comes from? (Simplicity for some people has become a kind of money-making industry, definitely not something we want to buy into.) How can I live with an attitude of trust in His provision rather than one of anxiety over finances, pridefulness over how well we’re doing, or obsession over the details of our shopping, menus, and what happens to the leftovers—but still live responsibly and prudently, emphasizing justice, mercy and humility in my attitude towards food as well as in the rest of life?
4. Finally, what can I—or what can you—do in a bigger way to impact our local community and the wider world, working to help feed the hungry, educate people, change policies, and love as Christ loved us? [Whew.]
In answer to Question 3, go back to what Doris Janzen Longacre wrote in 1976.
There is not just one way to respond, nor is there a single answer to the world’s food problem. It may not be within our capacity to effect an answer. But it is within our capacity to search for a faithful response.—Doris Janzen Longacre, The More-with-Less Cookbook, 1976
It’s still a good general answer—that obedience to God does not mean that we will come up with perfect answers to these questions, but that our search for a faithful response is part of that obedience. My obedience is not judged by whether or not I can convince my children to eat their vegetables, although their health and the issue of wasting food are definitely concerns we need to deal with. It is not judged by whether I myself can convince corrupt governments to feed people instead of buying weapons, although Matthew 6 and other Scriptures make it clear that I need to help where I can, for instance by supporting Christian workers and relief agencies working in those countries.
I do find in Scripture that I please God with an attitude of thankfulness and delight in His creation; and that I should pray to have just enough, “lest I be full, and deny thee, and say, Who is the Lord?, or lest I be poor, and steal, and take the name of my God in vain.” I read that Jesus cares about feeding hungry people; that God said we are worth many sparrows, and that he provided manna, quail and water in the wilderness. In other books, I’ve read accounts of God’s faithfulness and provision, even beyond the bare necessities—Granny Han's Breakfast is one story that my children enjoyed. [Unrelated side note: if you're reading that, please preview the photos if you have little ones--there's one scary picture.]
I read that Jesus commended a Mary attitude over a Martha one. I read that I should be faithful even with a little; that if we have food, we should be content; that self-control is one of the fruits of the spirit, but that I am also commanded “Go, eat your bread in joy”—Ecclesiastes 8:7. The Bible tells us to love, honour and respect others, including those in our own families—so that would include those who work to pay for the food we eat, those who plan and cook the meals, and those who eat.
Out of respect to my husband and children, I try to cook things properly and give them things they like to eat, trying to balance taste with what’s nutritious and what we can afford. Out of respect to me, or whoever else is cooking; out of awareness of the reasons why we eat simply; and, more importantly, out of thankfulness to God, the eaters need to do their best to eat whatever it is without grumbling and complaining or asking for something else. Sometimes all that’s easier said than done, especially because these days we are finding the old style of parental authority (do that or else, eat it because I say so) has changed as well. But those are the attitudes that are clearly Scriptural and are there for all Christians.
When we try to define eating simply, it’s more important to (simply) live faithfully than to set out a list of everything we must do or not do, especially when we’re not only trying to figure out what to do, we’re trying to get our kids or other family members to do it along with us.. Jesus said it’s not what goes into our mouths but what comes out of them that makes us unclean. Our stray comments and complaints are more powerful than we realize. One negative example of this was something we saw once on T.V.; it was about families who were getting food assistance, I think from a food bank, and who were given recipes to help use some of the unfamiliar items. So they showed a woman making spaghetti with lentil sauce, and then her family saying grace, and right away her husband complaining, “what’s this stuff? We’re supposed to eat this? I mean, maybe if we had some cheese on top or something we could at least swallow it.” And so of course nobody would eat it. More for the landfill.
Our children see what we really are, what we value, how we use things. If we spend so much time cooking Christmas dinner that we have no time or energy left to celebrate; if we get mad at the kids’ junk food but spend money on adult-style snacks and empty calories—these negative things speak louder to them than our words. On the other hand, if our meals are a relaxed time together, and we simply eat with thankfulness, our children see that, and it is the equivalent of many lectures.
It’s also important to choose our own priorities carefully. Nobody has all the answers and nobody can or should try to do everything. One very sad story I read recently mentioned a mother who was dying of cancer. When she was asked if she had any regrets, she said that she wished she HADN’T spent so much time making bread, since it meant she had less time with her family.
The second part of this post will suggest some possible responses and places to start.