When Jesus told his disciples in the gospel of John that he was the “bread of life,” it meant that he would nourish people physically and spiritually.
Jesus used food and fellowship to fill the empty stomachs of the poor around him, even those individuals who were outcasts because of sin (see Luke 15:1-2).
He also pointed to the day that God would serve a great banquet in the Kingdom that is to come, alluding to Isaiah 25:6.
For this and many reasons, food has become an important resource for Christian discipleship.
Our sharing, consumption and cultivation of it all point to the bedrock value of God’s sanctity of life. Nourishment is a part of God’s purpose for us.
Jesus’ final public act with the disciples was a meal in which he shared bread and wine as symbols of his body and blood, and Psalm 23 promises that God will overflow our cup at a divinely prepared table (see Psalm 23:5).
Food is important to everyone and, for that reason, many Christians are taking a second look at how food gets from the earth to the table.
The fair trade movement, focused on obtaining needed food while sufficiently and fairly supporting the farmers and manufacturers who make it, is breaking through in the Christian world.
This is a grass-roots movement and ecological effort to ensure that the food we buy is grown and manufactured by companies that care for their workers and have ethical business practices, such as living wages and decent benefits.
Many advocacy groups have been pushing for these regulations for years. The Fair Food Standards Council (FFSC), as one example, has negotiated with several major companies to protect tomato farmers in Florida.
Thanks to the FFSC’s efforts, Wal-Mart has agreed to stock fair food products.
Hershey’s, well known for delicious chocolate, ensures that at least 18 percent of its cocoa sources abide by fair trade practices; its goal is to reach 100 percent by the year 2020.
For Christians who are concerned about workers in the food industry, as well as the integrity of the food we consume every day, this is welcome news.
It also points to an emphasis on social justice—the notion that our community practices, not just individual choices and behaviors, shape our values and moral standards as a people and nation.
That’s why Jesus chose to eat publicly with people whom others excluded.
He was forcing his naysayers to see that God’s priorities were different from their own, emphasizing that God’s relationships exceeded the boundaries that people often put on one another.
For Jesus, sharing food was a powerful catalyst for connecting humans with God.
Brian McLaren, best-selling author and Christian pastor, states that fair food collaborations are key to establishing ethical expectations upon communities and corporations alike when it comes to bridging the gap not only between creation and the creator, but between the rich and poor.
Not everyone agrees, however, and the fair trade industry does have its critics.
Jason and Noelle Cosby, missionaries based in Conyers, Georgia, run a small, nonprofit coffee house called Awake Coffee.
Their mission is to build community one cup of coffee at a time in order to fund social projects locally and internationally.
Noelle Cosby, who has spent some time on coffee farms in Guatemala, noted that the fair trade industry is just that—an industry.
Farmers do not get paid directly, and fair trade partners often keep large sums of profits for themselves, she said.
Awake Coffee, on the other hand, uses a “direct trade” model, in which farmers get paid directly by the purchaser of their harvest.
The goal, Noelle Cosby says, is to create communities in which farmers have sustainable resources and an income to support their families.
Her concern is for the welfare of farmers and her customers alike. Living by the Great Commission of Matthew 28, Noelle Cosby says that she believes in the adage, “Preach the gospel; when necessary, use words.”
For her and many like her, preaching the gospel involves both building communities in which economics are sustainable and encouraging people to believe that Jesus is the good news of salvation for all who believe.
Joe LaGuardia is senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Vero Beach, Florida.