The Everyday Famine(s)

You won’t hear about it in the news because it isn’t news. It’s just what’s normal here.

Every day, or nearly so, the clanging sound of metal hitting metal lets me know that someone’s at the gate that surrounds our home, bringing vegetables or fish or charcoal or wooden carvings to sell. It happens often enough that the sound elicits annoyance from me as I leave the stove, or my book, or the couch to answer the call. And often enough, the people are so desperate to sell that if I say “not today,” they’ll plead with me, lowering the price with every word. But occasionally—at least once a week—someone comes to the gate with nothing to sell, nothing to offer at any price. They’re coming, very simply, to beg for food.

It’s summer here in the southern hemisphere, and corn is growing in every spare bit of earth in which it can possibly be grown, with pumpkin and squash vines bearing their orbed fruit between the rows. The corn will be allowed to dry on the husk before being harvested, after which women in villages will pound it to a fine flour that they’ll cook into nsima (nn-SEE-ma) the thick, polenta-like dish that forms the staple of people’s diets. Pumpkins—and their edible greens—along with okra, beans, and tomatoes will become stews to give the bland, starchy dough some flavor. It’s tastier than it sounds, and it fills you up.

But in these months—in February and March, as people are waiting for the harvest—their stored corn begins to run out, and they enter the ‘hungry months.’ What corn remains is rationed carefully, and two daily meals become one small meal, or none at all. As I walk and drive along the streets, I can see people using canes of bamboo to coax guava or papaya or avocado out of tall trees. When people pass me in the street, they often chew sugar cane before spitting them out, slowly and carefully extracting whatever sweetness might remain in the fibrous bits of plant. People walk slowly. Women in labor hardly have the strength to bring forth babies. These are the hungry months.

Despite this, corn—maize, they call it—is regarded with nothing less than reverence. “Nsima is our food,” James, our gardener, tells me. “If you don’t have nsima, you don’t have life.” Nsima—and foods like it—are to much of the world today what bread was to the ancient Near East when Jesus ministered there. “I am the bread of life” was meaningful in that context in a way that’s difficult for us to grasp. For most of us, bread is just one of many choices, and we may forgo it altogether if we’re going low-carb or gluten-free or Paleo. For them—for many people in the world—no bread, no rice, no nsima—means hunger. It means weakness. It means lifelessness. Eventually, it means death.

Every day, or nearly so, women and men look in mirrors and step on scales, count calories and worry about body fat and about their appearance. It happens enough that children as young as four begin to develop anxiety over food, or express fears of being seen in a bathing suit. Even eating healthfully can become an unhealthy obsession. And often enough, people become so desperate to get control over their eating as to spend huge amounts of money on drugs, diet plans, and surgery. Occasionally, the burden of eating; of bodily existence itself, is too much to bear, and people lose their lives to anorexia—the deadliest of all mental illnesses.

But even with the superstores filled full in season and out of season with food of all kinds in every space where food can possibly be so, many of us still struggle to extract whatever goodness might remain in God’s gift of food. We ration carefully so as not to overindulge, or we use food to comfort ourselves when we are feeling lonely or anxious. We eat thoughtlessly and on the run. In this land of plenty, we remain hungry, disconnected, unsatisfied. Those at the gates—people who are poor in America—are more likely to suffer diseases associated with poor diets because the ‘plenty’ doesn’t extend into the food deserts.

Despite all this—despite the tens of thousands of children who die each day because they don’t have enough food, despite the mothers who die giving birth because their bodies have never been nourished properly, despite those who suffer bitterly from the various ills associated with greed and overabundance—I believe we can, and should—“eat with joy.” It’s a phrase that comes from Ecclesiastes, a book that reflects, and is reflected in, a good many people’s experiences of life “under the sun.” We look for justice, and find injustice; time and chance sometimes trump hard work and intelligence. Still, urges the Preacher, even in this messy, confusing world, with hunger and poverty and injustice always with us, we should, as we are able, enjoy the good things of this life with an enjoyment tempered by the knowledge that life is fleeting, and that we have obligations to God and to one another.

And so when the sound of metal hitting metal pulls me away from my computer once again, I fill a bag with cornmeal and give it away with a smile, because that’s what I can do right where I am. But wherever you are—whether among people hurting from plenty, or hurting from want—you can do something, too.

Ten Reasons You (or Someone You Know) Might Like to Read My Book

I’ve recently received word from InterVarsity Press that my book is now in print, and will soon be shipping from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other places where books are sold–like the wonderful Hearts & Minds bookstore. As the book launches, I’ll be sharing excerpts and reviews in this space. If you think people you know would be interested in reading this book, would you consider sharing these posts? And if my book sounds good to you, but you aren’t in the position to be buying books just now, would you ask your local library if they’d be willing to purchase it?


Today, here are ten reasons why you—or someone you know—might like to read this book.

You might like to read this book if…

10. …you are dismayed by stories of abuse and maltreatment of the people who produce your food.

9.     …you don’t know about the abuse and maltreatment of the people who produce your food.

  1. …you are more likely to associate the word “chocolate cake” with words like “guilt” or “sinful” instead of words like “pleasure” and “celebration.”
  1. …you are weary of diets, including diets that are purportedly aimed at ‘optimal health’ rather than weight loss

6.   …you are obsessed with diets.

  1. …you are concerned about the American “obesity epidemic” or you are concerned about all the fuss about the American “obesity epidemic.”
  1. …you are worried about the environmental effects of the American way of eating
  1. …you, or someone you love, has struggled with a full blown eating disorder, like bulimia or anorexia–or, you, or someone you love, has struggled with an eating disorder that doesn’t seem to fall into any official category, but is worrisome all the same.
  1. …you appreciate good food but are weary of the snobbish “foodie” culture
  1. …you’d like to find peace and pleasure and communion with God and others at the table, but aren’t sure how to do that in today’s busy world—or if it’s even worth the effort.

The Eating Disorder You Don’t Hear Much About

The thing about a disorder like anorexia is that it eventually makes you look something like what the dominant culture regards as most beautiful, and achieving that ‘look’ becomes more important than, say, staying alive.

And it’s perfectly socially acceptable–for the most part–to tell skinny people how ‘good’ they look. When I was 17 and recovering from major thoracic and spinal surgery, I returned to school fragile and emaciated from the ordeal, only to hear “Oh my God, you lost so much weight–you look so good!!!”

Only a few sane, mature adults registered the appropriate shock and concern at my wasted appearance. Our culture is so sick that we think “sick” looks “so good!!! Anorexics are even praised for their self-discipline.

Image credit here

On the flip side, it’s seldom recognized that many people who are obese are actually suffering from an illness–compulsive eating disorder–that is often moralized as a lack of self-discipline.

It’s the unglamorous eating disorder. Because while thin people are praised, fat people are scorned. There are cries of war against ‘obesity’ from the highest places in the land while the Goddess of Thin gathers more and more worshipers to herself.

One thing I know is that we are all more than we look like; that we all are beautiful, marvelous, and perfect even in our brokenness because we are made by a God who is beautiful, marvelous, perfect, and who became broken like us to redeem that brokenness.

It would be better for all of us if we could stop keeping score–my disorder’s prettier than yours!–and give grace to one another. A great place to do that is in the breaking of bread, together.

Continue reading

Doing Good or Looking Good?

How I terribly misconstrued and made poor use of a talented actress’s work.

{An edited re-post of what has, strangely enough, become one of this blog’s most popular posts. So in case you missed it…}

From about age 15 or so, Audrey Hepburn was my idol. I worshiped the iconic film star, watching her movies again and again, poring over books about her life, and searching for images of her online.

I could have done worse. Hepburn was, by most accounts, an extraordinarily lovely person, both inside and out. In Roman Holiday–my favorite Audrey movie–she’s lovely without trying to be, and the beauty and dignity of her character is apparent even as she portrays a very convincing princess in disguise. In her later years, she was a Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF, having once herself been on the receiving end of emergency food aid as a child in post-WW2 Europe.

Sadly, although I admired Audrey’s humanitarian legacy and reputed grace and kindness, I was most inspired by her thinness. In the days of my Audrey obsession, her brilliant film performances were less important than the visibility of her long, lovely bones in her various stunning Givenchy and Edith Head designs. That her thinness was likely due to an eating disorder rooted in the wartime starvation she suffered as a child did not dissuade me; neither did her struggles with depression and self-loathing (which are demonstrated side effects of starvation.)

No. I saw a thin, beautiful, kind person who didn’t need to eat AND STILL had the energy to save the world. I wanted to be thin, most of all, and then be kind and save all the starving kids with the food I didn’t eat. After all, Audrey herself loved a poem that seemed to make this connection (“for a slim figure, share your food with the hungry.”) When I looked in the mirror, I saw broad shoulders and curves. I berated myself for being unable, like Audrey, to subsist on next to nothing.  ‘That’s the end of me doing anything worthwhile,’ I’d think–‘what good can I do if I don’t look like Audrey? Surely that figure was the fount of all her goodness?’

The Audrey-style of this dress only pointed out to me my (real or imagined) flaws.

Of course, this sounds crazy now. It didn’t then, partly because I was not incredibly well nourished (needed some brain food!) and partly because the idea that “you are worth something only if you look great” is a message that’s broadcasted endlessly and ubiquitously–especially to girls. Do a little experiment–listen to what people say to girls, even little ones. How many comments do you hear that are related to appearance (whether of clothing, hair, or whatever)? Do the comments that affirm (or simply call attention to) character outnumber the ones doing the same for appearance?

There are all kinds of beauty, and all kinds of ways of doing good in the world. I still like Audrey Hepburn’s movies, and I can enjoy them now without obsessing about the difference between Audrey’s figure and my own, but I still regret Hollywood’s move (beginning, some say, with Audrey) toward ever-increasing unreality in the area of women’s bodies. And so, for years now, I’ve actively looked for female role models who embody beauty that I find compelling and unusual and unrelated to body size, like Wangari Muta Maathai–women I can imagine sitting down to a meal and eating with–with gratitude and goodwill, and no guilt.

Because I want people like this girl to know that she can save the world, be beautiful in every way, and eat a great meal–and maybe all at the same time.

my niece Elli, helping pick an early spring salad

Fight Anorexia–Eat Together

{I’m away this week, but will continue to do some (re)posts–this article originally appeared in the ‘Weight’ issue of catapult magazine}

Years ago, I was idly leafing through one of the many church-supply catalogs that came to our house (a parsonage) and was amused to find featured a new product: a pre-filled disposable communion cup. Shaped like a single-serve coffee creamer, it had a double foil lid — peel back the first layer and there’s your communion wafer; the second uncovers your little sip of grape juice. The advertising copy proclaimed the product’s convenience and cleanliness. I grew up Baptist, where we were served grape juice in our pews in individual cups, and later drifted into the Anglican tradition, where I kneel at the rail and drink wine from a common cup.  Then, as now, that ready-filled communion cup strikes me as a terribly lonely and sad invention. When I eat the Lord’s Supper, I want to feel that I’m doing so along with the body of Christ. That hermetically sealed cup just doesn’t say “community” to me.

But, really, what can you expect from a culture in which we do so much eating in our cars, in which family meals eaten around a table are special occasions instead of sacramentally commonplace? Individual food idiosyncrasies are normal and accepted and “have it your way” is the ethic not just of a fast-food place, but of many families’ habitual food practices. The right of each person to decide for herself what she will and will not eat is highly respected; parents are discouraged (probably with good reason) from becoming authoritarian about their children’s eating. If all of these habits worked well, I’m not sure there’d be much reason for wringing my hands over the sad individualism communicated in that single-serve communion cup. But they don’t work well: diet-related disease is rampant, as is obesity. On the equation’s other side, anorexia and related disorders become more and more common. When these problems appear, words and phrases like “individual responsibility,” “willpower,” and “determination” are thrown around, suggesting that, again, the affected individual shoulders the responsibility for recovery. Is it really so?

Harriet Brown’s memoir Brave Girl Eating: A Family’s Struggle with Anorexia challenges popular conceptions of eating disorders. Traditionally understood as stemming from family problems, anorexia is often pronounced to be “not about the food.”  Thus, it’s often said that focusing on eating won’t work until “underlying psychological issues” are dealt with. Unfortunately, anorexics might die before that happens: it’s the deadliest of all psychological disorders, and it has an abysmal recovery rate.  Only 30-40% of anorexics will recover completely; 20% die; the rest cycle in and out of hospitals and treatment programs, never really getting to live a full life. When Brown’s fourteen-year-old daughter, Kitty, became ill with anorexia, Brown, a writer, read everything she could about the disorder. Unsatisfied with traditional explanations and treatment options, and terrified by the poor recovery rates, she came across a lesser-known but promising treatment known as Family Based Treatment (FBT), also called the Maudsley approach. It sounds simple enough. Phase 1: restore the patient’s weight. Phase 2: return control over eating to the patient. Phase 3: resume normal development.  It’s done at home, with mom or dad sitting with their anorexic child at every meal, packing them with the thousands of calories needed for their recovery.

Absurdly simple, or just plain absurd? Amazingly, patients treated with FBT have close to a 90% recovery rate — more than twice the recovery rate of patients treated with traditional methods, which usually involve expensive inpatient care. FBT seems so revolutionary because for so long it has been assumed that no one — and least of all, parents — should make anorexics eat. They’ll eat when their underlying issues are resolved, or so it is said.  Brown persuasively draws on studies demonstrating that “cognitive and emotional symptoms associated with anorexia are actually physical by-products of starvation.” In a study conducted in the mid 1940s at the University of Minnesota, Ancel Keys underfed 36 healthy young men for six months; most lost 25% of their body weight. In addition to showing the physical signs associated with malnutrition, some exercised compulsively and all developed obsessive thoughts and behaviors around eating: hallmarks of anorexia. Additionally, levels of aggression, depression, phobias and compulsions went up — not returning to normal until eight months of “re-feeding.” This study and others suggest that FBT’s proponents are correct in prioritizing the restoration of lost weight above dealing with “underlying issues.” The brain can’t function properly without an adequate supply of fat and glucose, let alone when it is undergoing starvation. A Creole proverb says, “An empty sack cannot stand up; a starving belly cannot listen to explanations.” Focusing on restoring the physical body first only makes sense.

It also seems wonderfully sensible that in FBT, parents (guided by professional therapists and doctors) are the ones taking charge of their children’s care. Brown is careful to say that she and her family have their share of faults, but she comes across as a dedicated mother, one who admits that sending Kitty off to a residential treatment facility would be easier in some ways but who nonetheless faces down the “demon” of anorexia (as she characterizes it) together with her husband. The reasons she gives for choosing this path are many; perhaps the most touching and persuasive is:

We have something no one else in the world has: we love Kitty best. No one else in the world can possibly want her to get better as much as we do. No one else loves her as fiercely, as nonjudgmentally, as unconditionally as we do.

In a culture where we outsource so much — cooking, cleaning, childcare — Brown’s words are a reassuring hug from an ever-loving mother. Love, I suspect, is the active ingredient in FBT. The first act of love from parent to child involves feeding and nourishment. Nursing a newborn and holding them close communicates love. Many of the things Kitty does when ill, and when working through FBT, mimic babyhood: she eats with baby utensils, sleeps on her parents’ bedroom floor, goes with them to work, is accompanied by them at every meal and snack (a good five hours a day spent at the table) and cries herself to sleep in their arms. She gains weight. Slowly, she returns from near-death. She’s able to start high school and spend time with friends again.

Of course, there are bumps in Kitty’s road. Without her parents’ supervision, she tends to restrict her eating. Criticism of FBT in general (and of this book in particular) may take issue with this fact, citing it as proof that parental supervision of an anorexic’s eating isn’t viable in the long term. However, the best-odds alternative — residential treatment — isn’t either. For one thing, it’s not terribly effective once patients leave the facility. And it is very expensive.  As Brown demonstrates, most states allow health insurance companies to put a separate cap on mental health coverage.  Hers allows just $1,800 annually, straining her family’s finances (and ruining the finances of families who are less well-off).  FBT is an approach that can (and does) work well much more cheaply, and without the stress of taking young girls — sometimes very young girls — away from their families and into institutions. And so what if Kitty isn’t ever able to manage her eating all on her own? What if that’s not what she’s supposed to have to do anyway?

Eating is (or should be) an intensely communal act. Brown nods in this direction, but I was surprised that she did not hit more directly on the fact that FBT — and Kitty’s journey, particularly — takes this fact richly into account in a way that traditional anorexia treatments haven’t. While traditional therapists tiptoe around the issue of food, citing issues of control and obsession as primary, FBT creates an environment where it is “impossible not to eat.” This sounds less like the setting of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (see Lauren Greenfield’s documentary Thin on the Renfrew Eating Disorder Clinic) and more like dinnertime at Grandma’s. Sit down and eat with your anorexic loved one until she finishes each meal or snack? Do we need to be told this?  Yes, maybe we do, when many of us

have fallen for the notion that food is a regrettable necessity. As if the ideal, the holy grail we are all working toward, is to do without food altogether — and as if we not only should but could attain this state, were we are good enough, determined enough, strong enough. As if that’s what we should want.

As Brown notes, our culture is deeply conflicted about food. But maybe what we need most — not just people with eating disorders, but all of us — is to eat together more. Almost in passing, Brown mentions that, pre-illness, Kitty was out of the house three hours each evening at gymnastics practice, eating dinner alone most nights. Somehow, I wasn’t surprised to read this, having recently come across data indicating that children from families who eat together regularly have a much lower incidence of eating disorders than children from families who don’t. If the best hope for anorexics right now is having a loved one sit and eat with them, and help them to eat, might eating together in general have more curative and preventative powers than we can currently understand? Brown doesn’t go that far, but I find her suggestions and story tantalizing as an invitation to think more seriously about the value of eating communally.

Of course, this community has to be of a certain kind. Residential eating disorder clinics form “communities,” but, as Brown demonstrates through Kitty’s limited experience with an eating disorder lunch group, grouping disordered eaters together might do more harm than good: in residential facilities anorexics tend to share tips on being “better anorexics.” (Again, see the Greenfield documentary Thin, or Google “pro-ana.”) Healthy eaters would be the best helpers; Brown herself admits to feeling unequal to the task because of her own issues with body image and food. Perhaps it would have been outside the scope of a family memoir, but I would have liked her to call for a healing of what Michael Pollan calls “our national eating disorder” for the sake of those who, on either end of the spectrum, fall victim to its most extreme forms.

Maybe, though, that could be a job for the church. After all, food and food-related metaphors are integral in much of what the church confesses. The primal sin took the form of forbidden fruit. Jesus is the true manna, the bread of life.  He gave his body and blood to his disciples (and, by extension, to us) in the last supper. Acts 2 tells us that the early church ate their meals together “with glad and generous hearts, praising God.” Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians urges them to practice the Lord’s Supper rightly; done wrongly, the body and blood of Christ is profaned, for when you eat the Lord’s Supper, you proclaim his death and the expectation of his return. Do it right, then — wait for each other, share with one another, make sure everyone has enough. Eating together this way — a self-controlled, loving-toward-others way — proclaims Christ.

It’s time for our church communities to eat in a way that proclaims Christ, but what would that look like? Minimally, it might look like eating together with thankfulness and joy.  God made our bodies, and made us to eat food and give thanks for it. Pass the communal cup with gratitude; pass the bread broken from a single loaf. And be sure that all — especially the most vulnerable — are served.