Food, Power, and Personhood

There is a scene in the book of Acts where certain members of the community complain because their widows are neglected in the distribution of food. To ensure fairness, the Apostles appoint seven men to oversee the distribution. This passage, often interpreted as the first appointing of deacons, connects the ministry of service, diakonia, with food.
For more than 25 years, I worked among men and women with intellectual disabilities. This was my diakonia, the primary way I lived out my faith in a loving God. Because I worked in people’s homes, cooking, and sharing meals was a routine occurrence. Within this context, I learned a great deal about the relationship between food and power.

If you search the words “food” and “power,” you will find two types of articles. One type will discuss topics like food sovereignty or food politics—who controls the growth and distribution of food and the effect it has on populations. The other will be about “power foods” and the power of food in general to transform one’s physical health.

You are less likely to find articles about food and how it relates to power inequalities between people. For instance, how a person can seek power over another person by controlling their food. This is a more direct and personal relationship between food and power. People who are marginalized are most likely to experience this—people like those I knew with intellectual disabilities. (It is possible for those who are marginalized to assert power in return, but they may require a supportive environment to do so.)

I remember Karen from early in my time working for a Winnipeg agency.  Karen had heard that David, a co-worker, was going to the institution she had lived in for years, so she offered him a piece of advice: “When they serve liver, make sure you eat it or else they’ll tie you to your chair.”  While everyone in the office agreed that tying people to chairs was inappropriate, the agency had its own way of participating in food-based control. The philosophy that prevailed in the field at the time assumed a right to control vulnerable people’s lives for their own good. At its core, this philosophy ascribed a lack of value to people with intellectual disabilities, by virtue of those disabilities, such that they required intervention of people who were already valued in order to be acceptable to society. By doing so, it declared a fundamental difference between people with disabilities and those without, which justified the latter group’s use of power.

In Karen and David’s story, Karen had not realized this key difference in their situations. She was a person with a disability who had been a resident of the institution. He was starting a new job in the institution’s psychology department. No one was going to be tying David to a chair.

Food in the agency was a tool in making people more acceptable and therefore more valued. By controlling diets to ensure people stayed slim, they would be more acceptable (valued) in appearance. By strict observance of rules—for example, using a knife and fork to eat pizza—people would not draw negative (devaluing) attention when they ate in public. By turning each meal into a training session, a person’s bad eating habits could be corrected.

Most of these methods, if not all, failed in their intended results. In fact, some were harmful rather than beneficial.  In the case of the dinner time training sessions, one participant became so anxious he began to flip over the fully laden table.
What lies underneath these attempts to control people with intellectual disabilities is a failure to see a fellow human being who is beloved by God and worthy of love and respect. In his article Again: Who is a Person?, theologian Oliver O’Donovan wrote “we can recognize someone as a person only from a stance of prior moral commitment to treat him or her as a person …… and… we know someone as a person as that person disclosed in his or her personal relations to us, that is, we know ourselves to be not simply the subject of our own attention to others, but to be the object of other’s attention to us.”

Oliver O’Donovan uses the Good Samaritan story as a starting point in his article. Just as Jesus did not answer the question “who is my neighbour?” we cannot answer the question “who is a person?” by defining characteristics of personhood. It is our prior moral commitment to see a person in the other that allows us to recognize someone who is beloved by God and to seek a relationship of mutual care. It is much more difficult to justify controlling a person with whom we have a relationship born out of our shared humanity.

This recognition turns food into an element of relationship instead of an element of control.  I saw this in practice as well in those 25 years. In the woman who visibly withdrew into herself when I kept making suggestions about the meal she was cooking, and whose confidence was restored when I acknowledged my mistake and stepped back. In the man who had flipped tables who, tired of the stress of being observed, chose to eat alone in another room, and his choice was honoured. And, in the story of Edith.

Edith was from a small town in Manitoba.  It had been her home all her life. After some conflicts occurred, she was removed from her small town and placed in an apartment in downtown Winnipeg. When I met her, all Edith wanted was to go home. I had no power to help her with that.  What I could do, though, was show up faithfully on the day she expected me and sit down to share the meal she prepared for us to eat together.

These small moments, among others, were times for healing. They turned preparing and eating meals together into ways strengthening relationships, celebrating community, and restoring power to people from whom it had been removed. That is the true power of food.

Shelagh is a member of St. Peter’s Winnipeg, where she is Deacon, Parish Administrator, and Theological Advisor to Outreach Ministry. She can’t imagine a life without a pile of books waiting to be read. 


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