A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, August 24, 2014
Leviticus 19:9-10 NLT
It is a terrible thing to be hungry. To go to bed at night with an empty, gnawing stomach. To feel hunger pangs with nothing to alleviate them. If you have ever been really hungry, you know the feeling. Fortunately, I was raised in a family that always had something to eat. We were never without food in the house. But a few times as a child I refused to eat what was set before me at suppertime because it did not suit my taste, and then later that night, when all had gone to bed and all were fast asleep but me, I got hungry. But it was a hunger of my own making, and was no one else’s fault but my own. And it was minor compared to the hunger regularly suffered by many.
There are a lot of people in our world, in our country, in our county who are hungry on a regular basis. And there are a lot of children who go to bed hungry every night by no fault of their own. A USDA government report notes that in 2012 14.5% of U.S. households were food insecure, which means that “at times during that year, these households were uncertain of having, or unable to acquire, enough food to meet the needs of all their members. . .” Of households with children, 20% suffered food insecurity. But alarmingly, of households consisting of a single mother and children 35% were food insecure.1 And for these people, and especially these children, our hearts go out. If we could have one prayer completely answered, it might be that there would be no more hunger in the world, but that the resources that are available might be shared so that all might have food to eat.
Jesus is quoted as having said, “you have the poor with you always” (Mark 14:7). It does seem that there has been a segment of the population designated as “poor” from the earliest recorded history. I read to you a couple of verses from the ancient Jewish code of law and conduct that made provisions for the poor of the land. (By the way, of all the chapters in the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, the 19th chapter of Leviticus is one of the most interesting and possibly most important.) In the verses I read, the people were instructed to not strip their grain fields, or vegetable fields, or vineyards clean, but to leave some for the poor, sojourners, immigrants or other folk without land, so they could glean the last remnants of grain, vegetables, or fruits to alleviate their hunger.
An excursion may be a bit off the point, but not much. I recall a scene in that American classic, The Grapes of Wrath, where the Joad Family and hundreds of others like them arrive in California hoping to find jobs picking fruit. When they arrive, the oranges are ripe and falling to the ground, and all these California transplants are on the verge of starvation, but they are forbidden from picking up and eating the fruit that has fallen to the ground and is rotting. So much food on the ground, but none that could be eaten by starving children. It is such a moving scene. What a travesty! What an injustice! we want to cry out as we witness such scenes. In writing that scene, John Steinbeck was not making it up. He was not writing fiction; but rather, he was chronicling what was taking place during that critical time of American history during the Dust Bowl and Great Depression.
But back to the present. While much of the world enjoys extravagant food and throws much food away, much more of the world is starving for crumbs “from the rich man’s table,” to paraphrase a line from Jesus’ parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:21). There is such an imbalance of food distribution in the world. Measures could be taken so as to better feed much of the world, if all the world’s peoples could agree and band together to do so. As Mahatma Gandhi so eloquently put it, “The world has enough for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed.”
Well, there are new movements across the world, and in many American cities, to address the problem of hunger and share available resources to meet the need. This summer I ran across two new terms I had never heard before that piqued my interest. One term is “Food Forests,” and the other is “Urban Agriculture.”
Food Forests is the movement that has shown up in American cities like Philadelphia, Boston, Seattle, and even nearby Johnson City, Tennessee. A food forest occurs when a city or urban area sets aside undeveloped land such as part of a city park, greenway, vacant lot, and so on to plant several layers—tall trees, short trees, shrubs, above-ground fruits and vegetables, and below-ground root foods—of perennial food sources. The layers of a food forest look like this: first there is the canopy, which is the tallest of fruit and nut-producing trees. Then are planted shorter or dwarf fruit and nut-producing trees. Below these are planted perennial shrubs such as berry bushes and briars. Appropriately mixed in are vines such as grapevines or climbing bean vines. Next there are planted above ground vegetables and herbs. Then there are root plants such as carrots or potatoes. Finally, there is a layer of edible ground cover such as strawberries and mushrooms. Of course, everything can’t be perennials, such as bean vines, but as much as possible things that are planted are perennials that produce year after year without having to be replanted. Or to put it another way, those who design food forests plan them so as to be self-sustaining.
The largest such food forest is located in Seattle, called the Beacon Food Forest, that covers seven acres. In nearby Johnson City, a church has donated land for a food forest that happens to be next to a food pantry. So the produce of the food forest will be offered free to hungry people of the area. The idea has caught on, and similar food forests are being planned all over Johnson City.2
Another term that is being used is “urban agriculture” and is very similar to food forests and could even take the form of a food forest, I suppose. Urban agriculture simply signifies cities taking vacant land—such as vacant, downtown lots that previously were nothing but trash-collectors and eyesores—and turning them into community gardens where a variety of fruits and vegetables are grown and are free for the taking by hungry residents. Small farms are now cropping up in urban areas all across the country. Of course, such small, urban garden plots and food forests require volunteers to make decisions about what and how things are planted and grown. And in the case of elaborate food forests, a lot of groundwork and planning must go into the project early on. But once the planning and planting are completed, for the most part the plots become self-sustaining after a few years, requiring minor care. As with volunteers who oversee Habitat for Humanity building projects, I am sure there would be volunteers in most cities who would be ready to help plan, plant, and oversee food forests and other urban agriculture projects.
And so, bringing the idea home, could such a thing as a food forest or urban agriculture on a smaller scale be a viable consideration for Oak Ridge? Could some of our city park land or greenbelt be set aside and designated as food forest land? Or could some of the unattractive vacant lots in Oak Ridge be transformed into urban gardens? And where would we go to start the conversation? It seems to me that the concept is worthy of consideration.
Jesus’ statement that “the poor you have with you always” doesn’t have to be interpreted as meaning that is the way it has to be. I don’t believe Jesus was saying there should always be poor people; rather, that is just the way it is. We may not be able to change the hunger problems of the whole world, but we might be instrumental in helping address the hunger problems in our own backyard where a large percentage of school children receive free breakfasts and lunches. The land is available, such as unused Haw Ridge Park on Edgemoor. And resources in Oak Ridge are abundant. And I feel certain ample volunteers would be available as well. Surely there is something that together the citizens of Oak Ridge might do to utilize the resources to feed the hunger need. Amen.
1USDA online report. 2Food Forests information was taken from The Mini Page, July 5-11, 2014.