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November 25, 2006 at 1:05 am #1493
‘Our food is killing us,’ Catholic farmer, rural life conference speaker says
By Joe Bollig
OVERLAND PARK, Kan. (CNS) ‚Äì Mike Callicrate is a straight-talking plainsman with a blunt, hard message: Your food is killing you, and your food system is killing your community and nation.
Callicrate, a cattle rancher from St. Francis in the northwest corner of Kansas, was one of the keynote speakers at the National Catholic Rural Life Conference’s annual meeting Nov. 10-11 in Overland Park. About 100 people attended, including farmers and ranchers, advocates, food industry professionals, and workers in Catholic social justice and rural life ministries.
The theme of the event was sustainable food, business and agriculture.
“Our food is killing us, literally,” Callicrate, a member of St. Francis Parish, said in an interview after his address. “The industrial model of food production that has been forced upon us has given us food that is very unhealthy.”
It’s not just the food ‚Äì loaded with chemicals and hormones, and produced in unhealthy ways — with which Callicrate has problems. He also doesn’t like what the industrial model of food production is doing to society.
“The model of the industry ‚Äì the industrial model, the business model ‚Äì is very, very abusive,” he told The Leaven, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Kansas City. “It concentrates power and wealth in the hands of a very few, which has always been a serious threat to human societies throughout time, and is now unprecedented.
“That great concentration … hurts our society. And another thing is that farmers are being driven from the land,” he said. “We are eliminating agriculture in this country in favor of imported food, so it threatens the survival of our country from an economic and social perspective.”
Although news of the ongoing crisis in food and agriculture was a part of the conference gathering, so too was optimism, according to Holy Cross Brother David Andrews, executive director of the rural Catholic conference, based in Des Moines, Iowa. One reason for this is that the church remains committed to justice in the areas of agriculture and food production.
“We need to construct an alternative to the corporate-controlled food system that we have in place right now,” he said.
That message, he added, “resonates quite well with the messages of our Catholic bishops’ conference in their last publication ‘For I Was Hungry and You Gave Me Food: Catholic Reflections of Food, Farmers and Farmworkers,'” a 2003 document in which they expressed concern about the growing concentration in the food system and called for an alternative in sustainable agriculture.
Brother David said he could sense a lot more optimism than at previous conferences.
“I think we know that we’re on the cusp of change,” he said. “It will still be uphill. It will still be challenging, but the people here are committed to changing the food system and changing the opportunities for farmers so they can get a more fair food dollar.”
Some of the speakers and workshop presenters offered a look at those alternatives and change.
Callicrate talked about Ranch Foods Direct, a meatpacking and retail meat business he founded to sell directly to consumers. Maizie Ganzler, with the Bon Appetit food service company in Denver, offered an alternative business model for socially responsible food systems.
Sister Lyn Szymkiewicz, a Sister of St. Joseph, presented a workshop on how religious communities can use their own land to promote locally grown food and create a market for such food through purchases by affiliated institutions.
Arlen Wasserman, a food company consultant from the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, gave a brief luncheon address about the Sacred Foods Project. An interfaith movement, the project seeks to bring together Jews, Muslims and Christians to improve the social and environmental conditions of the nation’s food system.
Bishop Ronald M. Gilmore of Dodge City, president of the National Catholic Rural Life Conference and a consultant on agriculture policy to the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Domestic Policy, said his fellow bishops are not only concerned about the quality of food and justice within food systems, but also about the spiritual condition of those involved.
“I visited with a group of bishops just a week ago, and we had considerable discussion over dinner about the rural question,” said Bishop Gilmore. “I think I asked, ‘How can otherwise wonderful people ‚Äì even religious people ‚Äì totally block out the ethical implications of what they are doing?’
“We know these are not demons. They are good people, but this question of how we treat workers is off their radar,” he added. “How do you get through to people? We share the same faith with many of these people, and they just don’t seem to get it.”
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