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Perspective | Pandemic magnifies injustices inherent in our food system. How can we faithfully discuss?

Around this time last year, our team at Life Around the Table was eagerly preparing for our fall Eating Together Faithfully (ETF) Training Retreat. For this training event, we gathered 30 church, community, and seminary leaders at Camp Chestnut Ridge in Efland, NC to equip them to facilitate conversations about food and faith based on our Eating Together Faithfully framework.

Courtesy of Life Around the Table

Using the ETF framework as a guide, we imagined together how church communities can learn to eat with God’s intentions for all creation in mind. Together we focused on best practices for facilitating small groups around the table, the need to approach these conversations with grace and compassion, as well as the importance of recognizing the need for racial justice at the table. 

The weekend was full of making new friends while refilling our mugs with coffee, spirited and lingering conversations at the table over incredible, locally-sourced meals, and time to breathe deep the cool fall air. By the end of the weekend, our staff was exhausted — but also renewed, encouraged, and inspired after spending time with folks passionate about bringing their communities together and eating in ways that reflect the goodness of God.

We couldn’t wait to begin preparing for our next in-person ETF Facilitator Training Retreat, scheduled for April 2020 at the Methodist Theological School in Ohio (MTSO).

However, in March, as the reality of the COVID-19 pandemic became clear, preparations for our Spring Training Retreat (like most of our plans) were quickly cancelled. There was no way to safely gather people from across the state, much less across the country, for a weekend of learning and eating together in-person.

And yet, we felt the conversations that the ETF Framework facilitates have become more important than ever, as the pandemic has amplified the fragility and injustices inherent in our food system. As a team, we felt called to use this time to join others in reimagining our food system and to shift towards practices of health, flourishing, and dignity for all. 

To continue fostering these important discussions around food and faith, our team has embraced the art of being nimble, and we’ve adapted our trainings from in-person to online platforms. Throughout the process of going virtual, we’ve found ourselves asking the same questions as many other organizations, teachers, and pastors in this moment:

Is it possible to foster a sense of community online? Can we still have engaging conversations? Can we still share a meal virtually? Will people even show up?

After much research and firsthand trial and error, we’re happy to have found tools and solutions that are working for our team and our community. 

Moving online and lessons learned

This spring, our Founding Director Grace Hackney, co-taught a course at Duke Divinity School that used our Eating Together Faithfully framework to engage Christian formation and education around eating practices.

As the pandemic hit mid-semester, the classroom moved online, which quickly taught us several key lessons for maintaining  a sense of community. First, we learned the value of the Zoom “break-out room” feature to create space for small group conversation and community building.

Second, the new online format taught us to be flexible and mindful of virtual attention spans. While conversations during in-person dinners can easily last two hours or more, on Zoom the same conversations might need to be shortened to no more than one hour. Another idea has been encouraging participants to come to each Zoom meeting having made a meal with the same seasonal ingredient — blueberries, tomatoes, squash, or cabbage for example. This way, we can still share a meal together, even if the dishes aren’t exactly the same.

Our team hopes to share these lessons learned to help foster even more conversations around food and faith in communities and congregations across the country. One of our students from the Duke Divinity School course has already hosted a virtual ETF group at a church in Asheboro. Earlier this summer a member of our team facilitated a new online ETF small group with participants from several different states.

These firsthand experiences with moving our in-person trainings to online has opened our eyes to new and creative ways to cultivate connections with people from all walks of life. While nothing can replace in-person interactions over coffee or a shared meal, we’ve found it is possible to continue relationship building as a key component of virtual educational trainings. By meeting online, we’re able to host conversations and create community with more diverse groups of people, fostering eye-opening discussions that have the power to transform minds and hearts. 

So while we won’t be gathering church leaders in-person around the table this fall, we’re newly energized to offer our Eating Together Faithfully Facilitator Training virtually. On September 25, from 12-2 p.m., we are hosting our first online Eating Together Faithfully Introductory Training via Zoom. Sign up for it here.

This two-hour training video call is for anyone interested in becoming an ETF Facilitator and learning how to lead small ETF groups among their families, friends, congregations, and communities.

Participants will be introduced to Life Around the Table and our mission, how the ETF Framework is designed, and things to consider before starting your own ETF small group. The training will also dig into why it’s important theologically for churches to discuss and participate in their local food systems, the challenges to having these conversations during a pandemic, and the need for grace in these conversations.

We will offer this training every other month throughout fall 2020, and we will offer additional online trainings on topics like addressing racism in the food system and best practices for facilitating small group conversations. 

To learn more about our work at Life Around the Table and our upcoming Eating Together Faithfully Introductory Training, please email Jimmy McKinnell: jimmy@lifearoundthetable.org.

Jimmy McKinnell

Jimmy is a Ministry Engagement Coordinators at Life Around the Table. He is from Tallahassee, Florida where hot, humid summers taught him to love the shade of live oaks and wading in nearby springs. Jimmy’s passion for the environment led him to study environmental science at Florida State University, and he received his Masters in Divinity at Duke Divinity School. Jimmy has experience in community gardening and working at local farms, and he cares deeply about food’s power to connect us to each other, to creation, and to God.