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Holidays: Days of Feasting, Days of Fasting

The end-of-the-year word is out: one in seven American families is having trouble putting food on the table, just as we try, each in our own way, to celebrate the Holidays. But what does it mean to celebrate and feast on a Holy Day with hunger at the highest levels it has been in years? With the economic downturn of the last year, far more of our neighbors have had to rely on food banks and food stamps than at any time in American history. Food bank budgets are down forty percent, meaning that they must stretch every resource they have to meet the needs of their communities. Many folks this Christmas will be serving up Stone Soup, that dilute but time-tried expression of people struggling to get by while not losing their dignity.

At the same time, world leaders have just come out of weeks in Copenhagen where they attempted to grapple with the looming monster of global climate change, one which is already wreaking havoc with the food diversity of this planet. Perhaps climate change itself is not the reason that so many people are hungry this year, but I did witness first hand how increasingly unpredictable weather has added to the food insecurity of Florida, Louisiana, Arizona, Sonora and the Yucatan Peninsula. Farmers, foragers and orchard keepers have shown me how their fields, fruit trees and gathering grounds have been flooded, with root rots, blights and powdery mildews rapidly spreading through regions that have hardly experienced them before in such virulent forms. In other places, such as the rangelands of Santa Cruz County, Arizona where I currently hang my hat, the drought has been so fierce that ranchers and grape growers are still reeling from its consequences. They hardly produced enough food to put on their own tables, let alone to pay the bills.

And yet we all go into the holidays hoping to share some kind of feast with family and with friends… something to rekindle our hopes, to express our sense of communion, and to tangibly demonstrate that even in a makeshift potluck, the whole is greater than the some of the parts wherever the human spirit is engaged. But what if we made the commitment this year—between Christmas or Hanukah and New Year’s Day— to devote just one day to fasting, to volunteer at soup kitchens or food banks, and to reduce our own consumption, transferring whatever goods we have to others who may be more in need. Is not that another, fresher form of communion? Is that not a feast as well? Is that not its own expression of our love for humankind?

This year, for many, there is not only no room at the inn, but the all night café on the outskirts of town is closed. We must make due with whatever we can find out in the stable— a bag of oats, a bag of corn, some spring water and some bitter herbs. Let it be a feast that we remember, one that can reunite us with rather than distance us from the rest of humankind, especially the poorest of the poor. And let us go into this next year sowing the seeds of food equity and food security for all, for that is the true universal health care for our planet.

Gary Nabhan, OEF, is the founder-facilitator of the Renewing America’s Food Traditions alliance, and the Sabores Sin Fronteras/Foodways Alliance.

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