Lutherans host exploration of food and faith

November 7, 2008

Exploring relationships between science, food and faith, more than 100 participants traveled to Faith Lutheran Church in Clive, Iowa October 31-November 2 for the "Food and Faith: Making the Connection" conference.


Scientists from many disciplines, members of clergy, and persons involved with all aspects of food systems -- as well as exhibitors from relief, development and advocacy organizations -- attended this fifth annual Sunday Scientist Symposium sponsored by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America's (ELCA) Alliance for Faith, Science and Technology.

"We call it 'Sunday Scientists' because we don't leave our science at the door when we come to church," explained Kevin Powell, a pediatrician from St. Louis, Missouri and an Alliance Steering Committee member who chaired the three-day event.

Bob Schroeder, a retired industrial chemist who has attended all five symposia affirmed that "it's critical that people make a connection between their Sunday life and the rest of the week" and said that it's particularly important for scientists to ask how these two worlds inform each other.

Three keynote speakers explored the key value of connection in concerns about food, health, agriculture, and Christianity.

Susan Klein, nutrition field specialist with Iowa State University Extension, reviewed current thinking in her discipline and explored some of the obstacles to healthy eating in the U.S. today. She pointed out that in Iowa and nationally, people live with an abundance of food, and "one result of abundance is the pressure to add value to food through processing."

Klein, who consults with the Des Moines Area Religious Council's food pantries, cited surveys showing that processed, high calorie, nutrient-poor food costs much less than a nutrient rich, moderate calorie diet stressing fresh produce. She underscored the challenge in addressing the epidemic of obesity and diabetes by moving people of all income levels toward more healthful food choices.

Government subsidies of commodities and nutrition education programs can conflict, Klein noted. Positive campaigns, such as "Pick a Better Snack" are more acceptable than efforts to discourage the use of certain foods and drinks, even though "it's recognized that 'My Food Pyramid', if used widely, would hurt certain sectors of the agricultural economy."

Klein opined that one of the reasons food safety is such an issue in the U.S. is that it lacks relationships with those who grow and process it. This idea was echoed by the second keynoter, Jerry DeWitt, director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, who said, "We as a society are searching for a farmer with a face."

DeWitt defined sustainability as economically viable and profitable, environmentally sound, and socially responsible, and explored the challenges facing sustainable agriculture. He addressed questions of yields in organic agriculture, energy use in growing and shipping food, and the variety of opinions on genetically modified crops.

An entomologist and member of the ELCA Task Force on Genetics, DeWitt suggested that the same question applies to GMOs in agriculture as to any technology, "Just because we can...should we?"

"There's nothing going to change agriculture more than the food and health issues now," he noted. If Iowans really ate "five a day", and grew 25% of those fruits and vegetables in state, there would be an increase in agricultural income of $300 million a year, 3800 jobs would be added, and only 30,000 acres would be required to do it, he estimated.

If congregations start with food and health, said DeWitt, a member of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Ankenny, Iowa, they will provide an entry point to many food issues, such as hunger, food access, obesity and diabetes.

"These are issues we should work on, and move beyond the comfort level of providing canned goods [to the food insecure]," he emphasized. "We have to be more willing [in the churches] to speak up and speak out on issues that draw us all together."

Bishop Alan Scarfe of the Episcopal Diocese of Iowa, illustrated this willingness when he noted, "This conference has been on my calendar from the moment I heard about it. Reality is pressing in on all of us about how we behave in community. A large part of that is about how we share food and resources."

Scarfe is a key member of the Iowa Farm-Church Consultation, which includes representatives from judicatories, staff from senators' offices, academics, and leaders of agricultural trade organizations and associations.

Having recently returned from leading a mission trip to Iowa's companion diocese of Swaziland, Scarfe elaborated on the call to speak up. "Our MDG [Millennium Development Goal] work is not simply raising funds for projects. It's holding our government accountable for progress. We need to become statesman-like, much as our colleagues are in their countries in Africa."

Paula Sanchini, member of Christ Episcopal Church in Cedar Rapids, acknowledged that the Waters of Hope project of the Diocese of Iowa, with its emphasis on safe drinking water, is in part a response to drought which also affects food supply in Swaziland.

A shorter rainy season with fewer more extreme storms is causing hunger among the large rural communities, with about half the population depending on aid during the dry season when food from household farms runs out.

"They need drought resistant seeds, and a return to traditional crops, like sorghum rather than corn," says Sanchini, a biology professor from Coe College. "They know this; we in the Episcopal Diocese of Iowa don't need to tell them. But we would like to facilitate connections with sources of seed, as we did with the chlorine producing units."

Sanchini and Scarfe were among a number of ecumenical participants at the event, including other Episcopalians, United Methodists and representatives of the United Church of Christ.

Third keynoter Duane Larson, president of Wartburg Theological Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa, reflected on the underlying theological issues of communion and shared abundance. "Food, justice and communion with God are inseparable," he said. He used themes from Luther's writings and Rubliev's icon of the Trinity to emphasize Eucharist as "a convening moment" in which the connections are obvious.

Larson noted that cultural diversity is lost when food diversity is lost, and called all the participants to compassionate connection as they continue to engage food-related issues beyond the conference.

Karl Evans, a research scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Denver who chairs the Steering Committee of the ELCA Alliance for Faith, Science and Technology, noted that this was the largest attendance of any of their symposia. "It's been energizing to see so many people lined up at the microphones during question-and-answer sessions with the keynoters. We had a topic of great interest in the right place at the right time."