August 3, 2015
I have a very complex relationship with food. I absolutely love it. My favorite food changes almost daily because there are so many incredible ones from which to choose. So many flavors to experience within a short life. But often food does not love me. Or perhaps, a better way to explain it is that my body does not love food. You see, I have an intestinal disorder called Crohn’s disease. It means that portions of my 22 feet of small intestines can become ulcerated (like a bunch of open sores, but on the inside) and inflamed. Crohn’s disease, along with ulcerative colitis, is part of a group of diseases known as Inflammatory Bowel Disorders (IBD), which affect 1.6 million Americans.1
Personally, I don’t like to draw attention to my illness and generally I give a non-committal non-answer when people ask how it affects me: “I have good days and bad days; but I’m always hopeful for more good than bad.” It’s hard to talk about an illness that is invisible to everyone else. It’s even harder to talk about an illness when it presents with the symptoms of Crohn’s. And sometimes, I would just rather pretend that my body is healthy and that nothing is wrong. But the reality is that it always affects my body and sometimes it means I’m in excruciating pain when I eat.
But the worst part of all is not the lack of food. It’s the lack of fellowship. We encounter Christ at The Table. And we encounter Christ around our tables at home with friends, family, and new acquaintances. When we want to “catch up” with others, the first instinct is to grab lunch, ice cream or go for coffee. Without the ability to eat, it becomes nearly impossible for fellowship, communion, and emotional support.
Crohn’s can be so isolating. I can find ways to sneak in enough calories to survive until tomorrow with easily digested foods such as pureed baby food or nutritional shakes, but it’s harder to find ways to sneak in authentic time and experiences with friends that don’t end up exhausting me further. It’s hard to find those moments to say “I really need to be in fellowship with you, but I can’t continue to pretend like going out for Indian food isn’t the worst idea I’ve had all week. Can we just sit here on my couch and chat without any refreshments?”
I spend a lot of my life thinking about various aspects food. My favorite de-stressing activity is to bake any and all desserts (I’d be lying if I didn’t say I also love eating desserts, too!). I’m always in search of a good recipe on Pinterest. I am on my synod’s “(anti-) hunger team” within the ELCA. My congregation is involved in anti-hunger ministries including a food pantry and a food co-op. My research focus for my Masters in Public Health (MPH) is rural food insecurity. I even come from a long line of food-growers. Some day I will inherit one and a half farms in Nebraska (although truthfully I know very little about the actual process of growing food other than what I’ve gleaned from my unsuccessful ventures in gardening and what I’ve heard about the process of farming around the dinner table growing up). The thing I’m most looking forward to when I return home to Nebraska is my weekly bag of vegetables, fruits, cheeses, eggs, honey and freshly baked bread from local farmers and producers.
Even after all that thinking and reflecting on different aspects of food, I still struggle daily with what it means to come to the T(t)able and not be able to eat, regardless of the reason.
Food is everywhere. It’s engrained in my life and also in yours. It’s in the news (the newest fad diets, research about what we should or should not eat, advertising campaigns about food), and it’s in our homes and most places we visit. It makes sense. Food is literally life-sustaining. But now, more than ever, I can recognize how much fear and anxiety food can cause for people.
I have never been without access to enough food. I’ve been lucky enough to be food secure my whole life. I’ve always known that I can find food. But I can resonate with the 49 million people in the United States who are food insecure.2 Even more so with those who are food insecure and have IBD, an eating disorder or a food allergy.
I am often also hungry for the communion with others that comes from breaking bread, salad and casserole around the table.
Sometimes “feeding the hungry” also includes those of us who would give anything to be seated with you, but can’t. Can’t because of allergies. Can’t because our psychological relationship with food is disordered, for example, by anorexia, bulimia, or other eating disorders. Or can’t because of tiny pockets of inflammation that we don’t like talking about.
We are often surrounded by a sea of food but still drowning in our inability to eat any of it.
Jenny Sharrick is the 2015 summer intern with Constituent Engagement with ELCA World Hunger.