Category Archives: Social justice

Fixing a Broken Food System

Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi

As the presidential campaign heats up, a coalition of organizations has launched a new initiative that’s also taking aim at the White House. The initiative, called The Plate of the Union, brings together the Union of Concerned Scientists, Food Policy Action, the Food Policy Action Educational Fund, and HEAL Food Alliance in a campaign intended to fix our broken food system. Starting its drive at the top of the political hierarchy, the coalition seeks to confront the US presidential candidates with the challenge of recognizing that the US food system is in crisis.

The food system, which should be promoting people’s health, has instead been a cause of chronic illnesses and early deaths. The system thrives on the proliferation of junk food—food stuffs high in calories but low in nutritional value. Junk food is cheap and everywhere abundant, while truly nutritious food, essential to good health, is expensive and often hard to find. Poor and working class people are especially victimized by the food system. Compelled to subsist on the cheap foods sold at convenience stores and supermarkets, they are preyed on by an industry bent more on profit than on health. The spread of diet-related illnesses not only wastes precious lives, but adds billions each year to a national health-care bill that is already severely bloated.

The disparity in prices between junk food and nutritious food has an impact that extends to generations that have not yet reached the prime of life. Statistics show that children born from the 1990s on have a lower life expectancy than children born in earlier decades. Rates of obesity and diet-related diseases like diabetes and hypertension have spiked. Families of color are particularly vulnerable. Fifty percent of youth of color, it is said, will develop diabetes in their lifetime.

This crisis is not due to chance. The root of the problem is US agricultural policy, shaped and determined by commercial interests that favor easy profits over nutritious food. The farm lobby, representing large agricultural and food corporations, pressures the government to subsidize an industrial farming system that produces vast quantities of cheap crops like corn and soybeans, the essential ingredients of processed foods. These then stack the shelves of supermarkets and infiltrate almost everything that comes in a package, can, or bottle. Subsidies of similar scale are not offered where they are truly needed: to farmers who want to grow healthy food, especially fresh fruits and vegetables, in ecologically beneficial ways.

The large chemical corporations also have a stake in maintaining this system. The industrial model of agriculture depends on chemical inputs, on fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides that degrade the soil, contaminate our water, and pollute our air. Chemical preservatives and coloring are added to the food, where they exist along with the toxic residues that remain from pesticides and herbicides. The system is thereby also largely responsible for the shockingly high rate of cancer in this country.

Together big agriculture, the food industry, and the chemical corporations constitute a powerful bloc having cozy relations with the most influential people in Congress. But scientists and nutritionists are ready to stand up to this Goliath. The Plate of the Union initiative is issuing calls to transform federal food policy at multiple levels, with the aim of ensuring that “every American has access to healthy, affordable food that is fair to food workers, good for the environment, and ensures that farmers can keep farming.”

Among the changes in government policy and programs called for by the initiative are the following:

·         support for farmers who want to grow fruits and vegetables
·         investing in research to improve farming practices
·         fostering ideas to make healthy foods available and conveniently priced
·         paying food and farm workers fair wages
·         promoting the success of small, independent farms
·         protecting rural communities from harmful chemicals that pollute the air             and water.

According to the campaign partners, the first step is getting the presidential candidates to recognize that our food system is indeed broken and then asking them to make a commitment to address it. Since the giant corporations have a strong hold on government, change will not be easy. Firm commitment and the will to resist are necessary. But if we don’t change our food policies, the consequences for ourselves, for this country, and indeed for the world will be disastrous.

To add your voice to the campaign, go here.

Here is an informative video with Dr. Ricardo Salvador of the Union of Concerned Scientists explaining the background and purpose of the initiative:

 

The Revolutionary Message of Martin Luther King Jr.

Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi

In the half-century since his tragic death at the age of 39, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. has been turned into a national idol. His birthday has been made a public holiday. His memorial stands in the heart of our capital city, close to the memorials of our greatest presidents. His name is invoked by politicians on both the left and the right, treated almost as sacrosanct. In the process of being glorified, however, King has been domesticated, sanitized, and tamed. His powerful voice, which once sent tremors down the spines of the power elites, now speaks in muffled tones. His speeches are quoted selectively, stripped of their fiercest and most insistent words. Nowadays we can even visit his memorial in D.C., read the quotations blazoned on the walls, and still chat blandly about the weather and the baseball scores.

MLK is most remembered for his “I Have a Dream” speech, which in the mid-1960s became the anthem of the civil rights movement. But King was more than just a civil rights leader representing the concerns of African Americans. He was above all a man of deep faith who was ready to follow the call of conscience no matter where it led him, even into dangerous waters. He stood up against all travesties of human dignity, against all violations against the integrity of the human person, without concern for the identity of the victims.
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On Hope and Hype: Reflections on a New Year’s Tradition

Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi

2016 New Year's at CYM

At the dawn of a new year it’s customary to suspend our habitual cynicism about human nature in order to express joyful hopes for the year that lies ahead. While this practice helps to spread good cheer, at least for a day, it often seems to me an exercise with no practical consequences. How, I ask myself, can declaring my hopes to others make a dent in a world oblivious to our dreams? How can we expect the mere change of a date to alter the conditions under which we live?

The practice, I fear, may not be very different from a drug habit. Both seem to serve a similar purpose. If I find my life’s circumstances intolerable, I may try to numb my pain and frustration by taking a drug. If I perceive the world descending into chaos, I  try to console myself and cheer up others by declaring that this year things will be better. In this way, hope may turn out to be little more than hype: a psychological hypodermic needle filled with a mind-numbing narcotic, a hyperbole that obscures the grim reality that engulfs us all.
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Thanksgiving Reflections

Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi

This past Sunday I attended an interfaith Thanksgiving service at the St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Peekskill, New York. I spoke extemporaneously. This is a polished version of my talk.

Thanksgiving is a time when we all gather to give thanks for the blessings we have received over the past year. Here, in the US, we have much to be thankful for, but as I reflect on the blessings that I have experienced, I also realize that almost every one of them represents a privilege that I enjoy but which too few people in the world share.

First, I realize that I live in a country that has not been subjected to devastating military assaults, and thus I enjoy relative security in my physical person. When I recognize this, I think of the millions upon millions of people around the world, especially in the Middle East, who do not have this sense of security. I think of the civilian populations in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Afghanistan who have seen their own countries shattered by war, their homes demolished, their livelihoods destroyed; whose loved ones have been killed right before their eyes; who have had to flee their native lands for distant shores, often at great peril, or who stay behind, where they live in the shadow of fear and danger. I realize that I should not take my own security for granted, knowing that it is part of a global system that entails devastation and despair for many millions.
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We Are La Via Campesina

Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi

We are La Via Campesina,” a short 15-minute video about the international peasants organization, offers a range of insights from the movement’s representatives as they speak about their struggles for food sovereignty and for social, economic, and climate justice.

A movement of small farmers around the world is probably far from the everyday concerns of Western Buddhists, whose interests are usually focused on meditation, Buddhist doctrine, and the application of mindfulness to their daily lives. But if the Buddhist principle that all things are connected is indeed correct, then our own fate and the destiny of the world may be intimately bound up with the fate of peasants working the land in Subsaharan Africa, Southeast Asia, and South America. The Buddha says that all beings subsist by nutriment, and for a billion people, the system of food production we adopt determines whether they will eat or go hungry. Even more critical, our choice may determine whether we manage to put a lid on climate change or push the earth’s biosphere beyond its viable limits.
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Building a Dream in Haiti

Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi

Since 2010, BGR has been a regular partner and supporter of the What If? Foundation, a US-based organization working in Haiti. Our partnership began with BGR support for the Lamanjay free lunch program, funded by WIF. This program, which continues to this day, provides thousands of free meals to hungry children in the Ti Plas Kazo neighborhood of the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince—a substantial daily meal of vegetables, rice, and protein. For many of these children, the meal offered by Lamanjay is their only meal of the day.

Haiti-WIF-students

WIF scholarship recipients cracking their books.

Aware that education is the most effective ladder up from poverty, in 2012 WIF started a scholarship program to enable poor children to attend school. They thereby opened doors of opportunity that in the past were tightly shut against children from poor families, who must pay exorbitant fees to enroll their kids in school. Almost from its inception, BGR has partnered on this program, too, and we have supported it consistently over the past three years. Now WIF is in the process of constructing a building to serve as a permanent home for the food and education programs. The building will bring a desperately needed school into this desperate neighborhood.

Yesterday we received a message from Suzanne Alberga, WIF Executive Director, reporting on the progress of the project. Her message is just below. I hope this encourages you, our donors, and gives you some insight into how your donations to BGR, whether large or small, are having a positive and uplifting impact on the lives of these children. Remember that without such help, these curious, capable kids, so eager to learn, would not be able to attend school, and would thus face insurmountable obstacles to a life of dignity and decency. 

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Food, Dignity, and the Commons: Frances Moore Lappé

Charles W. Elliott

Frances Moore LappeCommon Dreams has published an insightful interview with activist and author Frances Moore Lappé that illuminates the foundations of the struggle for a just global food economy: democracy and human dignity. Ms. Lappé is perhaps best known for her ground-breaking work on global hunger, recognizing that world hunger is not the result of insufficient food supplies but rather our industrial model of food production and the inability of the poor to access the available abundance of food or its means of production. In short, the problem of global hunger is the problem of poverty, the mal-distribution of political and economic power, and inequality. Acting upon this recognition, rather than a myth of scarcity, undermines multinational corporate attempts to more deeply entrench industrialized control over the global food supply.

Lappé argues that a solution to this inequality-driven hunger is the expansion of “living democracy”, exercised individually and collectively by each person’s daily choices of how we live, thus “infusing the power of citizens’ voices and values throughout our public lives.”  Continue reading