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The Practitioner Landscape: How Faith Communities are Involved in Food Systems Work

Published: May 2021
Authors: Emma Lietz Bilecky, Alex Treyz, Sarah Zoubek, Deborah Hill

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This project examines the landscape of organizations operating in the United States at the intersection of food and faith across Christian, Muslim, and Jewish religions, in addition to the spiritual traditions of several Indigenous communities in the United States. Entities working within the food and faith space include: faith communities, faith-based non-profit organizations, individual faith practitioners, and academic and philanthropic institutions. The goal was to understand the theological basis for faith-community involvement with the food system, to map the faith-practitioner landscape of activities related to food, and to identify trends. Faith communities are involved in a variety of political and advocacy activities at US state, federal, and global levels, but this report primarily focuses on faith practitioners affecting change in their local communities.


People of faith, houses of worship, and faith-based nonprofit institutions play a significant role in promoting the health and well-being of their communities through food. They grow food, feed the hungry, provide educational resources to congregants and communities to promote food justice, and participate in economic development through food-based enterprises. This report seeks to assess the food and faith practitioner landscape in the United States, with particular attention to justice-centered approaches pioneered by Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities.

Faith and Indigenous communities hold rich theological, ethical, and spiritual traditions that promote balanced relationships between people, food, and the land from which they come. From diverse faith traditions, academics and practitioners are re-imagining food systems that promote justice, equity, and healing using religious ethical frameworks, practices, and rituals.

A food-justice focus (instead of strictly a charitable lens) entails: 1) Addressing chronic needs and root causes such as racial inequity, structural inequality, low access to land and capital, and generational poverty; 2) embracing solutions that build local capacity and fuel systemic change; 3) empowering leadership and expertise reflective of the affected community; and 4) exploring holistic solutions focused on restoring food systems and relationships.

Key Findings

In the food and faith academic and theological literature:

  • Theological and spiritual beliefs across many traditions share four cross-cutting, food-related themes: connecting to land, responding to food insecurity, cultivating faithful foodways, and reimagining ritual practices.
  • The most recent, innovative activities of food and faith practitioners are largely missing, as the academic literature focuses more on theology than faith practice.
  • BIPOC and non-Christian practitioners are underrepresented.
  • The number of food and faith publications increased in the last two decades, primarily from Christian traditions.

In the practitioner landscape:

  • Faith-based and faith-placed anti-hunger initiatives deliver charitable food aid nationally and globally through food pantries, gleaning networks, public programs, and emergency food aid.
  • Faith and Indigenous communities also mobilize spiritual value systems to tackle the root causes of injustice and build food justice, land justice, and economic justice.
  • There is increasing attention to food justice in the food and faith landscape (beyond activities such as emergency food aid), building on a long history of justice-based work in BIPOC faith communities.
  • Faith community food-related programming fell into three categories:
    • Health justice interventions dealing with chronic hunger and diet-related disease. Many faith communities prioritize health interventions due to high incidence of chronic, diet-related disease in the US. Faith-based and faith-placed initiatives can be powerful motivators of health behavior change and sources for healthy, culturally important foods which seek to reduce racial health disparities.
    • Economic justice interventions dealing with economic opportunity and food sovereignty. Communities of faith and Indigenous communities develop and sustain alternative food systems to build community self-sufficiency, economic empowerment, racial equity, and resilience. The work often seeks to uproot dependence on processed foods and consolidated food systems that contribute to food insecurity and undernutrition, especially within BIPOC communities.
    • Land justice interventions dealing with land access, preservation, and healing connection. Many scholars and practitioners trace the origin of unsustainable and unjust food systems to the rise of industrial agriculture. They argue that it has left people disconnected from the land and their sources of food, producing a wide range of physical, spiritual and ecological ailments. In response, many practitioners promote solutions which seek to revitalize agricultural knowledge, regenerative and organic practices, and spiritual connections to the land and creation. There are several barriers to large scale implementation of justice-centered food and faith work. These challenges stem primarily from continued racial inequity, wealth disparities, power differentials, and white dominant narratives in food systems movements.

For academic institutions and researchers:

  • Build relationships with, study, and write about practitioners, with the goal of uplifting and sharing their work. Academic visibility for such work translates into validation, and this has the potential to influence philanthropic interest and support.
  • Greater investment in scholarly writing at the intersection of food, land, and environment from more religious perspectives (non-Christian), including examining topics of race.
  • Consider the importance of a faith-based as opposed to faith-placed orientation in the design of community interventions. Work to create culturally-relevant, culturally-appropriate health interventions that incorporate the particular faith, ethics, and spirituality of the population the intervention seeks to serve.
  • Advocate for and support specialty groups within academic societies (such as the American Academy of Religion) focused on food systems to encourage study of the ways in which faith communities address food systems challenges, both in theory and in practice. For non-profit organizations providing technical assistance.
  • Advocate for churches/synagogues/mosques etc. to leverage their existing assets in creative and justice-oriented ways to address food-related community needs.
  • Create opportunities for practitioners across faiths to routinely convene, build relationships, and share lessons learned, with the goal of promoting the cross-pollination of ideas and more powerful partnerships.
  • Promoting Equitable Food-Oriented Development ( to churches/synagogues/mosques/ First Nations communities to promote equitable local economic growth.
  • Support networking among BIPOC food and faith practitioners to increase the spread of best practices.

For philanthropy

  • Provide or support greater technical assistance provision for grant writing to address the lack of capacity of community-level faith-based organizations.
  • Develop partnerships with community development financial institutions. Provide free/ low-cost capital as collateral for faith-based BIPOC food-oriented business startups or expansion financing. HAZON’s Adamah Foods and First Nations Kitchens are great faith based business examples that provide culturally relevant food.
  • Support greater flexibility/more openness with regards to the grant deliverables and requirements for faith-based practitioners working at the community level to address the specific needs and goals of these practitioners and their organization.
  • Seek input from faith practitioners about what constitutes success of a grant project. The foundation’s measures of success should support the community’s ideas of success. When philanthropy’s measures of success do not complement the community’s goals the disconnect will result in a lack of resonance with the community.
  • Adopt Equitable Food Oriented Development ( project principles and support faith based food justice investment that emphasizes community ownership, community wealth, and wellbeing.
  • Prioritize investment in faith-based practitioners of color engaging in food justice and food sovereignty work at the grassroots/community level to address the root causes of food systems challenges and to promote self-determination and self-sufficiency for BIPOC communities.
  • Invest in conferences and convenings that bring together academics, funders, and practitioners of various faith backgrounds for knowledge sharing, problem solving, and capacity building to promote the cross-pollination of ideas and relationship building.
  • Provide funding for BIPOC and non-Christian practitioners to share their stories with a wider audience to disrupt prevailing, narratives grounded in white dominant ways of knowing and working.

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E96: The Role & Promise of Rural Faith Communities in Solving Hunger
Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Food insecurity in children is a tragic issue around the world and in the US. In America, the issue is especially challenging in rural areas. Rural faith communities often play a central role in addressing rural child hunger, and the support needs and desires of these organizations are nuanced by their faith tradition. This is the subject of a report done jointly by the Duke World Food Policy Center and the No Kid Hungry program of Share Our Strength. It is entitled, Rural Child Hunger and Faith Community Engagement. Joining us today are three experts on this issue. Emma Lietz Bilecky, the chief author of this report, received her graduate training at Duke University and is now Research Fellow with Princeton Theological Seminary’s Farminary project. Norman Wirzba and Robb Webb are some of the nation’s leading thinkers on issues of food and faith. Norman Wirzba a faculty member of the Duke Divinity School and has written some of the most influential texts on food and faith, and Robb Webb is Director of the Rural Church Division of The Duke Endowment and Chair of the Rural Life Committee of the North Carolina Council of Churches.