As we continue to explore the dynamic between food and justice, let us introduce you to…
Kurtis Peters currently facilitates a bulk-buying group focused on connecting local organic farms with his community around Commercial Drive in East Vancouver. He also currently teaches Biblical Hebrew and related things at UBC, and tries to plug food in wherever possible. He is deeply concerned for justice for the earth and its people – something which is driven by his strong connection with the biblical story.”
Planted: Kurtis, tell us a little about your personal journey concerning food, land, and justice?
Kurtis: It’s been a slow process getting into food-related justice. I think the first step came when I saw a documentary about the American meat industry. It was pretty disgusting. As a result, Erin (my spouse) and I decided to eat less meat. At that time, we were on a student budget, so we couldn’t really afford much meat anyway. Over the years we learned more and eventually just became vegetarians.
But you can’t be a vegetarian long before you come across other food issues. We watched the documentary film Food, Inc. and that was a major revelation for us – all the nastiness of the industrial food system being exposed. We couldn’t help looking at food in the stores (and their labels) with a whole new lens. Around the same time as watching a number of food-related documentaries we had become part of a social justice group connected to our church and this group was really good at analysing unjust systems (capitalism, colonialism, etc.). Pulling back the veil on corporations abusing land, farmers, consumers, and the political system just seemed to click.
But none of this would’ve been quite as compelling for me as it was, had I not spent close to a decade studying the Bible in post-secondary education. I became increasingly convinced that the God of the Bible is a God who demands justice for the oppressed. This means liberating slaves, eliminating patriarchy, ensuring the good health of all creation. And it means an intimate connection between God, humanity, and land. This comes up in so many places throughout the Bible, but one that stands out is the book of Leviticus, which argues that the people of God are to live on the land, to allow it to have its rhythmic rest (Sabbath) so as not to over-harvest it and so that wild animals can have access to its produce, so that labourers are not overworked. People who have fallen into debt and sold their land are to be allowed to return to their ancestral territory. Everyone has access to livelihood. The justification for all this? It’s not, as one might expect, that people are to be charitable to each other, though that too is true. The justification is that the land doesn’t belong to the people in the first place. It belongs to God, and that God is one who liberates slaves. If the people abused one another or abused the land – well, God would remove them from it and the land would experience Sabbath-justice without them if it had to. It’s a very interesting vision for society. And that kind of thing is all over the Bible. Between that, our justice group, and finding out more about our food system, I felt there wasn’t much choice but to put a better vision into practice.
Planted: Through your work and education, what has changed in how you see the issues of food and justice and how they intersect?
Kurtis: One of the major things that has changed is that I can no longer see food as a commodity. Food is a gift of abundance from land. If we abuse the land, we get bad food. If we nurture the land, it nurtures us. It’s a relationship really. That has led me to try to connect directly with local farms who are doing a good job of nurturing the land. So we get a CSA veggie box from Surrey, we get biweekly farm deliveries from a dairy farm in Agassiz and eggs from a woman raising hens in Yarrow. We grow some food at home (though I can’t say I’m great at it). And we do a lot of making things from scratch (beer, wine, kombucha, kefir, ginger soda, sourdough bread, sauerkraut, preserves, etc.). Don’t get me wrong, we do buy some packaged food. But my conscience directs me to the labels and to finding out what’s hidden by labels (especially terms like “natural”). I like organic, but I know the label doesn’t mean as much as it could. I try to avoid GMO products. I try to avoid palm oil. I try to buy produce only from BC, with one or two exceptions (I’m trying to bulk up on local garlic for the year, but I haven’t gotten there yet). These are the kinds of things I’m working on. But it’s not only about the stuff that benefits me as the consumer. Often, small, local, organic all mean better conditions for workers (most of the time). But we also have to be aware that some of these farms are using exploited migrant workers with Canada’s Temporary Foreign Worker program. So knowing the farmer means more transparency and accountability. I’d like to strengthen that with my own food-choices. On top of all that, I think I’ve become at least suspicious, if not cynical, of most mainstream food. It’s hard to do this in community, especially as a parent of young kids, when lots of friends and family are around. You don’t want to judge anyone, but you also want to make good choices based on your understanding of justice, ethics, as well as health. Food is tough and everyone has an opinion. But we’ll do the best we can.
Planted: So, what signs of hope are there that encourage you to continue to dialogue in the conversation about food and being socially responsible?
Kurtis: Well, it seems to me as though there’s a groundswell of people who are concerned about food systems. I worry that it’s a fad. Lots of ethical consumerism has gone through fads. But I’m encouraged anyway by how common it is, at least in our quirky “alternative” neighbourhood, to find people caring about where their food comes from and caring about the future of this planet beyond our own lifetimes. I hope that this is a concern that is here to stay and that the power of Big Food can be challenged. For ourselves, I’ve found that the quality of our food (and our cooking) has improved dramatically. I’m pretty sure we have found a way to spend a below-average amount on food for a family, while not compromising on quality or ethics. Sure, we buy more expensive things, but we know how to use them well and make them go far. I’m sure food is only one of several elements, but my health has only gotten better since we started on this path (about 10 years now). In the end, I feel like we’re living a bit more into the biblical vision of food and land justice. And we’re not alone. There’s a lot of people out there and a lot of folks in our community who are compelled by this vision and that gives me great strength.