Compost for the Mind: The Food, Faith and Justice Conference

by Jamie Sims (MDiv ’14)
with contributions from Khelen Kuzmovich (MDiv ’13), Nathan Peifer (MDiv ’13),
and Baylee Smith (MDiv ’13)

There is a fairly common misconception that compost is simply homemade fertilizer. The truth is compost is not really a fertilizer. It is a living ecosystem. It is a soil-like substance loaded with nutrients and brimming with microorganisms that are integral to delivering those nutrients to plant roots. It enhances soil structure and balances pH levels, suppresses bacterial and fungal infections in plants, and can even clean up chemical pollution in the soil. It is without a doubt one of the most valuable resources to any grower.

When I was a kid I had the good fortune of living next door to my best friend. Very rarely did a day go by when one of us was not at the other’s house playing together. We formed a well-worn trail through the woods that separated our homes. However, that trail ran directly beside my neighbors’ “compost” pile – an unkempt mixture of coffee grounds, old vegetables, moldy bread, and decomposing fruit. It buzzed with black flies and yellow jackets. This area of the trail was not very pleasant, and on hot and humid summer days it was unforgettably foul. The problem with this ‘waste’ heap is that it lacked the ideal balance of well-blended materials that makes for an effective and rewarding compost pile.

This is the case with most of the food justice movements in our country. Communities have experienced isolated pockets of people and unconnected organizations working on food justice – piles of separate activity. These groups have segregated typically on the basis of race, denominational affiliation, political ideology, or socio-economic status. These compartmentalized groups are indeed making headway and seeing some changes and advances. However, each homogenized group is missing out on the benefits of a balanced blend of people and ideas.

The Food, Faith, and Justice: A Common Calling conference, hosted by the School of Divinity’s Food, Faith, and Religious Leadership Initiative in partnership with the School of Medicine’s Translational Science Institute and Maya Angelou Center for Health Equity on February 20, took a huge step toward uniting various Triad-based food justice movements. The conference featured two keynote speakers: Malik Yakini, Executive Director of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, and Haile Johnston, founder of Common Market Philadelphia.

There was an amazing diversity of people and ideas from within Winston-Salem and surrounding areas. Like a well-balanced compost pile, the previously separate and isolated groups were brought together. As a result of these conversations, the discussion and dialogue was more productive and valuable. Those in attendance had the privilege of listening to a broad range of voices and seeing the multi-faceted nature of the local and global food movement. There were farmers, community gardeners, organizers, researchers, preachers, students, business owners, and professors. Johnston (pictured left), in his closing remarks, highlighted the fact that there were representatives from over forty different faith communities and even more unaffiliated members of the community.


Yakini (pictured right), stated, “We can’t have food justice without social justice.” Yakini presented a compelling case, based on his experience in Detroit and in other communities, that racial justice and food justice are inseparable in this country. It could even be argued that it is impossible to have food justice without environmental justice. There can be no racial justice without economic justice. These issues are neither clearly distinct nor practically separable. Though maintaining an isolated approach to address these disparities may eventually work, we caught a glimpse of the great benefits of more holistic approaches and collaborating with others at the conference.

There is so much that could be said about the content of the conference. The presentations given by Malik Yakini and Haile Johnston were phenomenal. Their commitment to place, their creativity and resourcefulness, and their inspirational stories were very moving. The wisdom shared and cultivated in our small groups, the engaging nature of the multi-disciplinary panel, and the simple conversations all contributed to the success of the conference. But for me, the most important aspect of this conference was the unification, at least in spirit, of a lot of separated and largely homogenous groups into a more balanced, blended, and just whole. Connections were made, partnerships were formed, and awareness was raised. The seeds of collaboration were planted; they must now be tended with care.

Groups like the one that came together at this conference have the opportunity to be more than a static fertilizer that is mixed into the soil of justice movements. We have the opportunity to blend with diverse groups of people and a variety of organizations to become that dynamic, living substance teeming with nutrients and the ability to deliver life to movements of racial, economic, environmental, and food justice. Compost is a vital part of any sustainable and productive garden. Collaboration, cooperation, and diversity are essential if we are going to see lasting and meaningful change in the landscape of food justice in Winston-Salem, this country, and the world.

“While a number of faith communities have hunger programs, it’s important to remember that full bellies are only a beginning, ” said Fred Bahnson, Director of the Food, Faith, and Religious Leadership Initiative. “What our keynote speakers Haile Johnston and Malik Yakini helped us realize is that we also need to address systemic issues of race and class and other societal structures. It’s these larger forces, not simply individual behaviors, that have done the most to perpetuate obesity, hunger, and poor health. And the biggest way faith communities can address those larger structures is to create on-the-ground alternatives like the ones Malik and Haile described. When it comes to food justice, faith communities have a clear role to play — we should create holistic communities where everyone can flourish.”



About the Food, Faith, and Religious Leadership Initiative

Renewing theological education for the 21st century, we equip religious leaders with the knowledge, skills, and pastoral habits necessary to guide congregations and other faith-based organizations into creating more redemptive food systems, where God’s shalom becomes visible for a hungry world. 


Related Links of Interest

Churches Urged to Link the Poor with Healthy Food
(Winston-Salem Chronicle, March 1, 2013)
Photo Slideshow from the Conference
Detroit Black Community Food Security Network
Common Market Philadelphia 
School of Divinity Food, Faith, and Religious Leadership Initiative


Videos of the Keynote Addresses

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Media Contact: Mark Batten



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