In 2008, after almost 5 years of membership, I wrote the following letter to our awesome church after a wonderful but sugar-filled retreat. I questioned the disconnect between wanting to nourish our kids spiritually while pumping their little temples full of crap food. I challenged the church to view food as a justice issue. I gave suggestions for alternative snack options. And, to the credit of the leadership, they took me up on my suggestions… and promptly put me in charge of kids snacks for the next retreat. The squeaky wheel gets the grease – and sometimes the responsibility. =)
Though (as a whole) we’re a little late to the party, Christians in large numbers, are starting to notice that food matters to God. Rick Warren is challenging his church and the Church at large to stop supporting gluttony as the last acceptable sin. I’m going to a “Tasty Conference for the Hungry” next week hosted by the Vision Forum on the Reformation of Food & the Family. And cutting edge farmer, Joel Salatin, who has been all over indie food films like Food, Inc. and Fresh, is the new Wendell Berry, getting food and farming inspiration from observing God’s creation.
So here’s hoping that Christians can start becoming a bigger player in the practice and dialogue of bodily stewardship, food justice, and the abolition of gluttony.
October 10, 2008
Dear Church Leadership,
Luke and I just wanted to take this opportunity to share our feedback with you regarding the retreat this weekend. We were so thrilled to finally be able to make it back to a family retreat after missing them for the last 4 years. The conference center was beautiful and hospitable. We loved the “lite” schedule, affording us time to relax, hang out with old friends, and meet new ones. Melissa and Karen did a wonderful job organizing and we were so grateful for those who volunteered their retreat time to hang out with our kids so that we could have uninterrupted conversations (a rare treat). Our kids had a blast and it goes without saying that the revue show lived up to the hype. We’ve already got a skit in mind for next year!
There was one “food for thought” item (foreshadowing pun intended) that we wanted to pass along to you as well. In short, there seemed to be an overabundance of sugary foods available for our children. In a 24 hour period our church kids had jellybeans, desserts plus multiple sugary options at each meal, lollipops during play time, candy during the skit night, s’mores, and unlimited access to more jellybeans!
Now contrary to possible popular opinion, the Sunukjian household is not a sugar-free, treat-less one that wrestles offending food from our children and force-feeds them tasteless rice cakes. We think treats can be one of many fun ways to celebrate special events and we choose them wisely and offer them in moderation.
That said, I am wondering if our church can rethink our standards for the physical nourishment that we offer the children we care so much about. I know we would never provide “spiritual” junk food for their growing hearts, so why don’t we have a similar conviction and care for their growing bodies? (Disclaimer: I’m operating under the assumption that it is accepted common knowledge that sugar, its code names (i.e. high fructose corn syrup), and its accomplices (artificial colors/flavors/preservatives) are not good for the human body. In fact, they actually have negative effects: dental cavities, immune system suppression, blood sugar spikes and crashes, and exacerbating pre-existing physical, mental, and psychological diseases that seem to plague modern-day kids. If not, I’m happy to provide evidence to support these statements.)
So here are some questions that have come to mind when reconsidering our standards:
Why do we offer snacks and treats to our children in the first place?
I believe it initially comes out of a heart for hospitality and celebration, but I think we’ve been influenced by our culture that food is mostly for our pleasure. God provides food primarily for nourishment and the beautiful symbolism of food in biblical celebrations has been watered down to far more “celebrations” with much less meaning and significance.
Why do most snacks/treats involve so many bad ingredients and so few nourishing ones?
The factors seem to involve convenience, comfort, pleasure, and misplaced frugality. I think it’s safe to say that these are values that have only recently received widespread popularity and never made Jesus’ priority list. (A word on frugality: processed foods actually cost less in America because our government subsidizes many of the ingredients, including the omnipresent “high fructose corn syrup.” In many other cultures, people have to pay the true cost of highly processed and packaged food products, but we have the “privilege” of buying a 42 ingredient Twinkie for less money than an apple. I consider that to be a social justice issue in regards to poorly supported American farmers and the urban communities that are essentially forced to live on processed junk. I believe the stewardship of our funds could involve more than just getting a good deal on bulk food products at Costco. Spending money is a direct way of supporting the values behind the products we buy.)
What are some nourishing solutions that could still be enjoyed by the kids?
Since we know that our kids will not be treat-deprived by the retreat center meals (loved the salad bar, by the way), perhaps we can focus on treats with protein and good fats, both of which help slow the digestion of sugar into the bloodstream.
- NUTS – Since we’re fortunate not to have any nut allergies that I’m aware of, those would be a good energy-providing midday snack. We could even greet kids with a bag of trail mix to go with the “woodsy retreat” theme.
- POPCORN – I appreciated the popcorn this weekend and thought we could invest in a small air-pop machine. We could take it with us, pop it as we need it, avoid sketchy microwave popcorn ingredients, and produce less packaging waste. I have a local heirloom popcorn source and it may not hurt the kids to know that it is possible to make popcorn without a microwave! (Wha?! Really? =))
- CHEESE – It’s a great source of fat and protein that most kids like. And if we forego the individually wrapped string cheese sticks, we could save money and landfill space by cutting chunks of cheese into bite size pieces.
- FRUIT – How did we make it through a fall weekend in Virginia without eating locally grown apples? Cutting up fruit is a quick, easy and healthy snack and we have great local and seasonal offerings in our Chesapeake Bay region.
- VEGGIES – They may be a harder sell, but a few interesting dips (ranch, cheese, nut butters, etc.) could make them more appealing.
- HOMEMADE TREATS – How about asking a few volunteers to make a dozen home-made cookies? It’s less expensive, less packaging, and I’ve yet to meet anyone who bakes with monosodium glutamate or red #5.
- HEALTHY STORE-BOUGHT SNACKS – I’ve found some snacks with good ingredients through a local health food co-op. Even some of the adults at church love the Rice Chips. =)
Though some of these changes might be an adjustment for our kids, I think it’s just like any other issue that comes up while nurturing children. We need to gently guide them and give them opportunities to learn, experience, and make wise choices, rather than make decisions based on what feels (or tastes) good.
Though Luke is not quite as zealous as I am, he is in full support of (and had editing rights to) this letter. We hope this “sugar manifesto” is taken in context with our love for and commitment to this church body. We send it prayerfully and thank you for your prayerful consideration. Love you guys.
Luke and Melanie Sunukjian
Please share how the Church is (or could be) engaging with food justice issues?