Jesus then took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed to those who were seated as much as they wanted. He did the same with the fish. When they had all had enough to eat, he said to his disciples, “Gather the pieces that are left over. Let nothing be wasted.” (John 6:11-12)
Picture the scene. It's 2000 years ago, and a controversial Jewish rabbi is becoming increasingly well known. You've heard of this rabbi, through rumour and hearsay, and now you have the chance to see him in person. He and his disciples are partway up the nearby mountain, and you follow them. You're not alone – many other people have the same idea. And now you find yourself sitting on the grassy mountainside, in a crowd of thousands. But better than that, you’re eating: barley bread with fish. You’re not sure how, but everybody around you has food too. People are claiming it’s a miracle, that this food is bread from heaven, and that this is no ordinary rabbi; others are not sure. As the shadows lengthen and people start to drift away, you notice some of his disciples going to and fro over the area, picking up the few leftover pieces of bread and fish.
John 6:1-15 is one of the passages which describes how Jesus miraculously fed a large crowd. The narrative is so important that it was included in all four Gospels, and it is one of many biblical passages that has challenged and inspired us for our forthcoming paper on food, relationships and the environment.
Food loss and waste occur all along the supply chain – whether food is crushed during transit, or rejected due to the cosmetic standards of shops, or simply thrown away at home. But the scale of waste in the modern world is truly shocking. Globally, it is estimated that one third of all food produced is lost or wasted. This represents a terrible misuse of resources – land, water, energy, fuel, fertiliser, packaging and so on. If ‘food waste’ were a country, it would be the second largest in the world by land area (behind only Russia), and the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases (behind only the United States and China). Perhaps surprisingly, in higher income countries it is individuals that waste the most food – about 70% of UK waste occurs at the household level. So although changing business behaviour is necessary, this is an area in which individuals can make a significant difference.
Jesus gives us a wonderful example when it comes to thinking about food. He provided enough food for all the thousands of people. In another account of miraculous food provision, Jesus says: ‘I have compassion for these people; they have already been with me three days and have nothing to eat.’ (Matthew 15:32) Jesus’ compassion was not just a feeling; he took action by providing food for all. Our first lesson: if we are to be like Jesus, we must make sure that everyone has enough food.
Food waste is an issue of social justice. There are people without enough food in every country, but it is particularly true when considering global disparities, because food is so unjustly divided and distributed. About 821 million people in the world today are undernourished. While the poor suffer the consequences of an environment degraded by intensive agriculture – water pollution, degraded soil, climate change – the rich are never satisfied. Avoiding food waste at an individual or household level expresses compassion and solidarity with those who do not have enough food: a way to express love of neighbour. Food is meant to be shared – just as Jesus, his disciples and the crowd shared food on the mountainside, 2000 years ago.
Giving thanks for food
Jesus gave thanks when he multiplied the food. This is an important action modeled by Jesus, and the Gospels record Jesus giving thanks for food 11 times in total. But gratitude is not only expressed by words; it is also expressed by actions. Jesus instructed his disciples to gather up the leftovers. By doing so, they too expressed gratitude – to Jesus for the multiplication, and to God for his creation of life-sustaining food. Our second lesson: if we are to be like Jesus, we should respond with gratitude through both words and actions. We should delight in food, which expresses God’s love – just as Jesus, his disciples and the crowd delighted in their food on the mountainside, 2000 years ago.
Today, food is generally seen as a cheap commodity in countries like the UK, and this is nowhere more clearly demonstrated than in the enormous amount of food waste. Under the influence of advertising and our society’s consumerism, we thoughtlessly buy and dispose of food. Collectively, we do not respect or acknowledge our membership of God’s creation. We behave as if soil, plants and animals exist only for our convenience, to be exploited for our greed. But this pattern of food system is unsustainable. As we explore in our research paper, modern ways of eating – characterised by ingratitude and insensitivity – are gradually destroying the environment on which we all rely.
How can we change? Most fundamentally, we need a different attitude. We need to learn the lessons of Jesus’ food ethics. Firstly, we must delight in food because this encourages gratitude for God’s creation. All people and animals are dependent on creation for life-sustaining food; it's an integrated ecosystem of which each person is only one member. Secondly, we need to learn to share food with the people around us, to experience the joy of eating together, and with those who don’t have enough food, in the UK and across the world.
A different attitude will lead to different actions. Reducing food waste is both one of the most important and most accessible lifestyle changes we can all make. Project Drawdown made 100 suggestions for tackling climate change, and reducing food waste was ranked at #3. So, take time to read John 6:1-15 and reflect on Jesus’ teaching for yourself. And then put it into practice. Consider simple suggestions like buying less food, planning meals ahead of time, and storing and eating leftovers. Jesus’ teaching is more important now than ever: ‘let nothing be wasted’.
Andrew Phillips is a participant on Jubilee Centre’s SAGE Graduate Programme. He graduated from Oxford University, with a BA in Classics and Biblical Hebrew.
Food, relationships and the environment is also the theme of this year’s Social Reformer’s Summer School. Apply now to join us here in Cambridge and discover a biblical framework for social transformation.