22 February 2009

Lent and Local or Catholics and Co-ops

As we approach the season of want, the season of hunger, we're reminded of our common agricultural roots, and the closeness of Christianity to the rhythms of time and the seasons. Embedded in the spiritual exercise of fasting is an even older condition: hunger. Whether physical or spiritual, hunger reshapes our sense of normalcy; it sometimes sharpens our awareness and heightens our senses, but left unchecked, it corrodes and can kill. Some religious traditions have made a spiritual discipline out of what used to be a common, shared reality. And while the Church has wandered and strayed as much as any one person, its roots are deep, profoundly deep, and we can still be nourished by its beliefs and traditions that reflect an older understanding of the world.

One thousand years ago, one hundred years ago, all food was local food. And March was difficult. Depleted winter stores collided with cold earth, food not yet grown. For Christians, Lent was the fast before the feast of Easter, with the physical and spiritual reflecting each other, synchronized. A spiritual voyage launched by a seasonal necessity. Today, in our non-seasonal, global appetite for whatever-we-want-we-want-it-now, Cub and the Co-op re-stock their shelves daily, and we expect our desires to be satisfied immediately. Instead of seeing our excess for what it is, we turn our obesity epidemic and fast-food or fancy-food fixation on its head, calling this overgrown appetite our right, our destiny, our blessing.

Are we entitled to eat whatever it is we crave? I don't have an answer for that question, but Lent and Eating Local are both compelling reasons to think deliberately about food and its place in the seasons of growing and eating. If we think about eating local we have to think about what it is we want to eat. Especially at this time of year, eating local is an exercise in long range planning about what we plant, grow, and harvest in the warmer months of the year. What remains of September's abundance that we can now draw upon? The doom of March leads me to think I should be growing and preserving much more food of my own. And that leads to a conversation about gardening and how we use our landscape – particularly us non-rural, grass-growing homeowners.

Even as I begin to think about eating local, I'm not sure I like all the implications. Take oranges, for instance. I can't imagine winter without oranges. The spray of a just-peeled orange in the cold air of winter is an unmatched fragrance. When I eat oranges in the winter I feel as alive and healthy and the first non-scurvied sailing crews! And what would happen to the Florida citrus industry if everyone in the north stopped eating oranges because they weren't local? On the other hand, what if Minnesota farmers were met by crowds of people wanting fresh, locally grown spinach in May? And what if consumers wanted four bushels of apples in September instead of three pecks?

Imposing disciplines on ourselves reminds us that although we are surrounded by an abundance of riches, our needs are few. The rest is manufactured. Eating local and fasting shouldn't be looked at as opportunities to assign blame or assume guilt. Eating local helps us think about our individual habits in relation to larger issues of food production, while fasting is a way to clarify our own needs by experiencing what some people feel each day – hunger.


  1. Thank you! A handful of local (Northfield, MN) bloggers are contributing to the Just Food Co-op's Eating Local Challenge in March. This post is also on their site, which has great ruminations on the topic. The link to their website, and all the bloggers is: http://eatlocaljustfood.wordpress.com