Community Voices (Helms): The politics of food

Every once in a while my mind gets kidnapped by a phrase that I hear someone say. My mind as a tongue lets the words just sit and savor for days and when the thought finally dissipates, I notice an aftertaste that lingers. This usually happens in areas of life I feel passionate about.

I was listening to an interview on NPR’s “Fresh Air” with the late Anthony Bourdain. He was an author and travel documentarian known for his show “Parts Unknown,” where he explored foods from different cultures around the world. With politics the way they are, I will say I don’t care much for the current climate, but Bourdain said something that stuck with me: “Food is political.”


Now those words cause my ears to perk up because I have a passion for people not to go hungry.

You might think I have a passion for feeding people because I am a ministry-minded person. But my reasons go much deeper. I have experienced being on both sides of a food pantry; giver and receiver. The struggle is real and somehow by putting my story out there, I hope that the shame and stigma that comes with having to admit you are hungry is diminished.

Here is a fact: “Food is political.”

In 2008 with the economic collapse, my husband was laid-off of his job. Nine months would go by and he still would be unsuccessful in securing an income. Not any fault of his own, mind you, just a failing economy. As a family we were in survival mode with four growing children to feed and a mortgage we couldn’t pay in the four-bedroom home we had adored for 11 years. I used to volunteer in food banks and now I found myself being the one having to go to one.

As a family, we needed to make a decision to move in order to go where the work was. Even after transferring our family halfway across the country to Kansas, we were still relying on me working three jobs and getting into the rhythm of knowing when each food bank would be open to keep food on the table.

Just recently, I’ve been hearing about my grandchildren’s schools, where more and more children are relying on government funded meals. “Food is political.” But this is America.

I have a friend from Myanmar who comes and visits every few years and I remember asking him this question. “What has been the most surprising experience for you while being in the United States?” His response floored me. He said, “The way people from my country think of America, I couldn’t believe there were people hungry here. It is the land of milk and honey. It surprised me there were poor people.”

With all the food programs, interventions, ministries, and missions, where can energies be spent that will make the most impact? I had a wonderful professor in seminary who helped me consider the struggles of this problem in a different way. To make his point he went beyond the quote from the 1986 article in “Yoga Journal” by Lao Tzu who said, “If you give a man a fish you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” The dilemma after many years doing missional work and seeing the slow progress or no progress at all, my professor said the real question we should be asking is, “Who owns the lake and the fish?” Bourdain’s words continue to sit on the tongue of a larger social issue: “Food is political.”

There is a huge governmental influence with food that creates a socio-economical climate that perpetuates poverty even in the midst of resource abundance. This is the side of the coin that I think creates shame and stigma around hunger; separating out certain populations of people for political gain and control.

But the flip side of the coin about food is no matter where you go in the world, and no matter how impoverished a society might be, there is an air of creativity and resourcefulness to the cuisine of a culture. I recently watched an interactive interview between Bourdain and the chefs at Google from Oct. 20, 2011. I have always been fascinated by colorful people with fascinating lives and Bourdain was one of those intriguing people who had the privilege of enjoying the meals of many different countries, influences and tastes. What I heard him say reminded me that even though lack of food can cause a type of shame or societal stigma, he witnessed over and over again people doing extraordinary things within the limits of the resources they had.

Bourdain explained the relationship between a culture and its delicacies: “People are proud of their food ... it reflects their history, their family history, their ethnic history, often a long story of struggle and deprivation to arrive at these dishes.” In that one statement, Bourdain deflates the political balloon for me. I am somehow transformed by the human spirit to be resilient because of and in spite of the politics of food.

Kat Helms writes from Taneytown.