Jennifer AyresIn its centennial year, Candler School of Theology students and faculty are focusing on the issue of food insecurity in the local community, the wider Atlanta metro area and beyond. Outside of the classroom, a group of students called the Candler Creation Keepers are planting and tending Candler’s theology garden. In the classroom, Jennifer Ayres, assistant professor of Religious Education, is a leading voice in the ongoing conversation surrounding food insecurity. She is also the author of Good Food: Grounded Practical Theology. As the holiday season begins, Ayres took time to answer questions about food insecurity.

What is food insecurity?

Ayres: First, someone who is in a situation of food security has reliable, consistent access to healthy and nutritious food on a regular basis. Someone who is food insecure, on the other hand, can range from the experience of worrying that you're going to run out of food before the end of the month to having to adjust your diet, skip meals, or go full days without food. People who are food insecure are a broad category of people and families. For example, families who are understood to be food insecure are labeled as such because the parents might skip a meal so the kids can eat. These people may be experiencing the emotional stress of worrying that they might not have enough food for their kids or experiencing the real physical stress of not having a diverse enough diet.

Why is food insecurity an important topic for theology students?

It's an important topic for people of conscience everywhere. I think that given the range of experience of food insecurity, almost all of us who are in religious leadership will encounter people in our own congregations, in our communities, or in our organizations who are food insecure.

For theology students in particular, I think it's a moral and theological issue because our religious tradition is oriented around a table. Our central, sacred symbol and practice is the Communion meal. Even from the very beginning, we read about how early Christian communities struggled with addressing the economic issues in their community – the fact that there were poor people present while they were celebrating this meal, because they celebrated it in people's homes. So the poorest people in the community would often be on the very edges of the practice and they might not get any food at all, and they would leave the practice just as hungry as they were when they got there. For Paul, this was a scandal. He was just completely scandalized by the fact that people could walk away from the Lord's Supper not having eaten. And he's talking about really eating, not symbolic eating, but real eating.

What are some ways that communities of faith in the United States are addressing food insecurity?

Religious communities are doing everything from beginning to grow their own food to trying to figure out ways of contributing to food security in their local communities. I think it’s important to remember that sometimes people who are food insecure are in our churches. For many congregations, it's taking care of the people that are already within their own faith community.

For example, Lincoln Memorial United Methodist Church in Chicago is part of a youth urban gardening project, which had several goals. The first and most immediate goal was to grow food for the senior members of the congregation, many of whom were food insecure. But this also helped teach young people how to grow food so that food security for them was not just bound up in whether or not they had ample resources, or whether or not they had a grocery store nearby, but actually teach them that they could fend for themselves and grow their own food.

Another example is the Rev. Chad Hale, executive director and founder of Urban Recipe, which is a system of food co-ops. The co-ops receive food from food banks, supermarkets, and people who grow food in their gardens. All the members come together to distribute the food among themselves and then they have a meeting. I think this is a really important model that contributes also to human dignity and agency because it's not a model of charity in which people are handing food to someone who needs it. The community is doing the work of managing and building itself.

Daniel Sack's book, Whitebread Protestants: Food and Religion in American Culture, traces the history of religious responses to hunger and food insecurity, from the founding of food pantries to Bread for the World and other organizations that respond to hunger and food security issues.

So addressing food insecurity has been at the heart of Christian ministries of charity really since the beginning. But now I think religious communities are looking for more systemic, structural places to respond to the justice issues that are at stake. It’s not just providing the emergency food assistance, but also trying to do something to change the system that generates people who are hungry and food insecure.

Food insecurity is one of the topics being explored as part of Candler's centennial year. How is the topic being explored in courses, events, or other initiatives?

The Candler community felt it was important to have a pressing social issue that would be a focus for us in our centennial year. I think that resonates with Candler's idea of being about the work of preparing real leaders to make a real difference in the real world and trying to figure out what some of the issues are that we face in Atlanta. As much as we're celebrating what Candler has done in the past 100 years and envisioning what it's going to do in the next 100 years, we're also about being a theological school in the city, and that's a big part of our identity.

At Candler there are courses in which we address some of these issues. I teach a course on religious education in ecological contexts in which we wrestle with issues of our food system. We work on the connection between social justice and environmental concerns, and all these issues around food, and how it's produced and distributed all relate to the environment.

I know some of our students have worked in Contextual Education I placements in organizations that deal with communities facing food insecurities – those who work with refugee communities in Atlanta and those who are working with communities that struggle with mental illness. In fact, I really can't think of a Con Ed I site that wouldn't have some connection to issues of food security. Even if you're working in the hospital setting, you're still going to encounter families who struggle with nutritional needs, and sometimes that's what keeps people in the hospital. So new students at Candler will encounter food insecurity right away, in addition to thinking about how it will relate to their religious leadership once they finish at Candler.

For prospective students who may be in discernment about their calling, what are some ways that Scripture might guide them on this issue?

In the Gospel of John, there's this poignant conversation between Simon Peter and Jesus. Simon Peter is trying to affirm his love and affection for Jesus, and Jesus is saying, "Feed my lambs, feed my sheep." We might spiritualize that text, but I think there's also the very concrete reality that Jesus was deeply concerned about feeding real food to the people around him – sharing meals with the people around him. If we look at that as only a spiritual practice rather than as a material practice – a bodily practice of feeding and sharing food – then I think we've missed a big part of Jesus' ministry and the Church's ministry today.

Watch Ayres' Dean's Lecture with Rev. Chad Hale on the topic of Food Insecurity.