Food and Faith

January 22nd, 2012

Despite what you may have heard, Congress has not declared pizza a vegetable! What Congress actually did last November was block proposed changes to the federal school lunch program. Under the Department of Agriculture’s planned rules, schools would have had to cut back on low-cost but high-calorie offerings such as French fries and tater tots, and “would not [have been] allowed to credit a volume of fruits or vegetables that is more than the actual serving size” (Federal Register, Jan. 13, 2011). Tomato paste on pizza slices currently enjoys an exemption from that provision. As the Washington Post explained, “an eighth of a cup of tomato paste is credited with as much nutritional value as half a cup of vegetables” and thus counts as one vegetable serving, an equation that allows “foodmakers to better market their pizzas to schools” (and led to all the “pizza is a veggie” jokes). Several food companies claimed the new rules were excessive government regulation that would increase the cost of lunches. The USDA contended that prices might rise by only 14 cents per meal and that nutritional benefi ts to students should be the overriding concern.

Feuds over school lunches are only one way that concern over what and how American youth eat makes headlines. McDonald’s® has announced that this spring it will reduce the caloric count of Happy Meals® by about 20 percent. Each meal will now have fewer fries and a small serving of fruits or vegetables.

Food Fight

The prevalence of obesity in our culture takes a particular toll on American youth. The CDC reports that, as of 2008, over one third of the nation’s children and adolescents are overweight or obese. The health risks for these youth (high blood pressure and cholesterol, breathing problems, type 2 diabetes, and more) often only worsen with time. The wrong kind of food in the wrong amounts isn’t the only culprit—genetics and environment also contribute—but it’s a dominant one. Poverty exacerbates the problem, since low-income youth often have limited access to healthy and affordable foods.

Nor is excess weight the only “food fight” facing today’s teens. The devastating eating disorders anorexia nervosa and bulimia continue to plague youth. Last March a National Institute of Mental Health study found “about 3 percent of U.S. adolescents are affected by an eating disorder, but most do not receive treatment.” Common assumptions notwithstanding, not all who suffer are female; 1 in 4 cases of eating disorders affect males.

Food and Faithfulness

Eating disorders, obesity, and excess weight are not “just about food.” We can’t simply tell youth to eat less or eat more. Nor can we tell them, “Trust in Jesus and your problems with food will disappear.” But we can and should encourage and equip all youth to view their relationships with food as a spiritual concern and not only a physical one.

We know food matters to God because food mattered to Jesus. Jesus ate and drank like anyone else—and, we can safely infer that he enjoyed it! Some religious authorities labeled him “a glutton” (Luke 7:34), and his first public miracle was to turn water into wine at a wedding banquet (see John 2:1-11). Jesus fed the hungry, used the fellowship shared at a dinner table to call people to lives of commitment to God, and established a special communal meal—Holy Communion—through which his followers could experience his ongoing presence.

This article is also published as part of LinC, a weekly digital resource for youth small groups and Sunday school classes. The complete study guide can be purchased and downloaded here.

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