Do you ever stop to think about your food: where it comes from, how much it costs, what farmers get for their hard work? Is your food grown locally or does it travel from another region of the continent or the world? Does the food rely on migrant workers or underpaid farmers? Are the fruits and vegetables organic, fresh, frozen or canned? Our culture has become increasingly focused on our food and we cannot take it for granted. Those who can afford it are usually willing to pay more for fruit, vegetables and meat that is raised in a sustainable manner and that ensures just compensation for small farmers.
Studies show that it's the economically advantaged who tend to make healthier choices about food. The poor are all too often drawn to heavily processed food because it is cheaper. The April universal prayer intention from Pope Francis invites us to think about and pray for the small farmers that are so involved in the process of bringing food to our tables: "that small farmers may receive a just reward for their precious labour." He is not speaking of huge agribusiness, but, rather, the small family operations throughout the world.
I'm reluctant to acknowledge how ignorant I am of the situation of small farmers. I personally know few farming families. A Jesuit colleague grew up on a farm in the Ottawa Valley. His family operated a small farm. They raised most of their own food. David's father also did a lot of woodwork and stonework as a way to supplement his income. David's brother continues to operate the farm. I do know that the operation of a farm requires a total commitment. You can't disappear for a few days and ignore the livestock.
Someone has to rise fairly early to feed the cattle, collect the eggs, check on the pregnant cow, milk the dairy cows, and track down the livestock that managed to break out overnight. I visited their farm several times in my first years of Jesuit life. I always enjoyed sharing in the farm chores, but I never felt a desire to spend my life that way. The experience was almost like a holiday for me, a safe step into my overly romanticized notion of the farmer. It's no holiday for families who do this year round. Statistics Canada shows that the number of farms is on the decline. However, the average size of Canadian farms has increased. The situation of David's small family farm is increasingly rare.
Most of us in North American are removed from the production of our food. Smart supermarket chains find ways to make the link to the real farmers who grew our apples, collected the eggs, milked the cows or raised the chickens. Transit posters inform me that my eggs took five days to go from collection by the Stanford family to my local supermarket.
Recent years have seen the growth of what is known as Community Shared (or Supported) Agriculture (CSAs). CSA is an alternative food access and distribution method whereby the customer is linked directly to the farm. The customer purchases "shares" in the harvest, paying at the beginning of the season and receiving a portion of the harvest over the course of the season.
There are many advantages. The customer receives a regular supply of fresh and healthy produce. Customers have a direct link to the farmer. The farmer is supported in her work by the real investment of the customer. Both farmers and customers share the benefits and risks of the growing season. Ignatius Jesuit Centre, our operation in Guelph, ON has had a successful CSA since 2001.
Like most intentions we pray for, prayer for small farmers is ideally accompanied by action, actually doing something about the small farmers, so they may receive a just reward for their precious labours. That can be expressed in many ways: joining a CSA, willingly paying more for food that is raised in a sustainable way by small farmers, intentionally buying Canadian fruits and vegetables rather than buying something grown thousands of kilometres away, or actually getting to know a small farmer. Let’s pray – and act – this month!
About The Author
Philip Shano, SJ. teaches at Regis College, oversees their spiritual direction training, serves as the Provincial's Assistant for the Native Apostolate, and is involved in our social apostolate in the Toronto area.