U.S. Catholic magazine posted a jolting article about the unbalanced diet in the global community, which now has more obese people than hungry people.
“In a world of want where 1.4 billion people are struggling to survive on $1.25 a day, the No. 1 global health problem related to food is now obesity. According to the International Federation of the Red Cross (IFRC), the 1.5 billion obese people worldwide now outnumber the 925 million who are hungry,” wrote Kevin Clarke.
“We are eating ourselves to death in one corner of the planet, while in another families skip meals to extend food budgets or trade education or shelter for daily caloric survival,” he said.
“Prepare for more grotesquerie in the future – both obesity and hunger are poised to escalate,” Clarke wrote.
“As First World diets are overwhelmed by inexpensive processed foods that contribute to obesity and runaway health costs that are proving a crippling economic burden in the West, hunger looms in the developing world as world commodity prices spike to record levels and drought brings famine to regions in the Horn of Africa, Afghanistan and elsewhere,” said Clarke.
His piece appeared to draw from a longer article by Bekele Geleta, secretary of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.
“Fifteen per cent of the world’s population goes to bed at night hungry. Most live in the Asia-Pacific region, particularly on the Indian subcontinent and in sub-Saharan Africa,” wrote Geleta last September. “Each year, three million children tragically die before their fifth birthday from under nutrition, a condition arising from a serious lack of one or more key nutrients.”
“[A]gainst this backdrop of severe hunger and misery, over a billion people are tackling the opposite problem of obesity and, perhaps surprisingly, malnutrition,” she said.
“In contrast to undernutrition, malnutrition can arise from the over-consumption of poor quality and unhealthy food and is becoming a serious health problem for those living in societies where food is plentiful,” wrote Geleta. “Poor and rich alike are at serious risk from an epidemic of malnutrition.”
Putting obesity and hunger on the same plate reframes the food disorder in the global community. Apparent disconnectedness becomes an interconnected reality.
And while goodwill Christians begin to see the twisted connectedness of obesity and hunger, perhaps we should also begin to think more about food and faith in terms of disorder and order.
Food disorder is a cord that binds the biblical witness together. From the earliest accounts, we see food at pivotal points.
Eating fruit from one tree triggered a disorder that resulted in human beings eating bread in sweat. Red pottage split apart Esau and Jacob.
The hoarding of manna, which bred worms, was a sign of disobedience. The daily distribution of food created conflict in the early church.
Conversely, food is a source of order. We see that every tree in the Garden was good for food. The consumption of lamb in Egypt created unity for the journey ahead.
Jesus fed 5,000 and taught his followers to pray for daily bread. The disciples were brought together around a common meal. Jesus showed himself to his disciples at a fish fry on the beach.
In the Bible, food has both light and dark sides. So it is today in communities gathered around the Bible. Food blesses and binds together communities. Food also curses and divides communities.
When American congregations gather for an unhealthy, calorie-intense Wednesday night meal, many other Christians in both the United States and abroad have too few nutritious calories.
We may profess one Lord, one faith and one baptism. But we are nutritionally divided.
Many goodwill people of faith do engage in feeding programs at home. We do support hunger and development programs abroad. Yet too few of us have on our plate an understanding that our global food system harms both the well-off and poor.
As Clarke notes, “eating is a moral act.” As such, the biblical imperative to seek justice compels us to think more about how the malformed global food system creates harmful abundance and ensures harmful scarcity.
Let’s paraphrase an infrequently heard prayer: “May those who are hungry have bread; may those of us who have bread hunger for a just food system.”
Robert M. Parham (1953 – 2017) was the founder and executive director of Baptist Center for Ethics from 1991 to 2017. He served as executive editor of EthicsDaily.com, BCE’s website, from its launch in 2002 until 2017.