John Oliver, Pope Francis, and Jesus on Food: Reflections on Feasting and Famine

This week I watched a disturbing (yet somehow still hilarious) exposé by “Last Week Tonight” host John Oliver on food waste in the United States.

Here are a few of the figures Oliver presents in order to illustrate the magnitude of the problem:

  • As much as 40% of food produced in the US never gets eaten.
  • Americans throw away $165 billion worth of food every year.
  • That amounts to 20 pounds of food per person each month, the equivalent of throwing away enough food to fill 730 stadiums over the course of the year.

Food waste is a growing problem, the amount of food Americans waste having risen significantly in recent decades. Oliver quips, “At this rate, in 40 years when you order pizza from Domino’s they’ll just deliver it straight to the nearest dumpster…which they should, but that’s not the point here.” The late night host is also quick to note how disheartening and shameful this trend is, given the fact that nearly 50 million Americans live in “food insecure” homes.

We recognize the severity of this food crisis even more acutely when we look beyond our borders to the rest of the world. If this many people go hungry in the US, one of the world’s wealthiest, best-fed nations, how bad must the problem be elsewhere? By one estimate, about 805 million of the world’s 7.3 billion people—or 1 in 9—suffered from chronic undernourishment in 2012-2014. Clearly this is not only an American problem.

John Oliver is far from alone in raising the alarm. Pope Francis in his recent encyclical, Praised Be: On Care for Our Common Home, attempted to draw the attention of the world to the issue of food waste. Therein he decried how reprehensible the current state of affairs is, “where a minority believes that it has the right to consume in a way which can never be universalized, since the planet could not even contain the waste products of such consumption. Besides, we know that approximately a third of all food produced is discarded, and ‘whenever food is thrown out it is as if it were stolen from the table of the poor”’ (#50).

World hunger is not a new problem. In fact, it seems that a big part of the problem is that we are all so used to it that we have grown callous to the situation. Today most of us are less likely to perceive solving world hunger as an urgent humanitarian mission than as the hackneyed mantra of beauty queens. So in an effort at reinvigorating the conversation, I’d like to come at the topic from another angle, namely, by bringing the issue of food waste into dialogue with the Gospel reading from this past Sunday.

In this familiar Gospel passage, Jesus multiplies five loaves of bread and two fish in order to feed a massive crowd. One interesting aspect of this story—the only miracle story attested in all four Gospels—is the extravagance of Jesus’ action. Jesus doesn’t just produce enough food to satisfy all those gathered around him. He produces so much food, the Gospels tell us, that twelve wicker baskets are left over. Here, as at other times in his ministry (e.g., his miracle at the wedding in Cana), Jesus’ ministry is marked by exorbitance, we might even say excess. This superabundance, Jesus suggests, is a foretaste of the reign of God, which is inaugurated in his own life.

So, then, does this story provide gluttonous Americans with biblical warrant for carrying on in their wastefulness? Jesus produced more food than the people could eat, so why shouldn’t we? Certainly a more thoughtful reading of Scripture resists such a distorted interpretation.

Yes, by performing a miracle of such extravagance, Jesus sends us a message about the goodness of food and God’s desire for our enjoyment of it. Jesus enjoyed food and drink during his lifetime (to the point that some of his detractors apparently called him a “glutton” and a “drunkard” [Mt 11:19]), and he encouraged others to do the same. He also frequently likened God’s reign to a great feast. And he did all this in spite of the fact that people were going hungry in his society just as they are in ours. Clearly, then, the Christian response to food waste and world hunger is not to stop enjoying food or even to implement a ban on feasting.

Just as clear, however, was Jesus’ intention that all should be fed. Even more so than his indulgence, people took notice of the inclusivity that became a hallmark of his dining habits. He welcomed everyone to his table—women, tax collectors, even his betrayer—and showed special concern for those who hungered most. When he performed the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and fish, he did not do so just for the show of it or for the sole pleasure of a privileged few. His exorbitant gesture served to satisfy the hunger of all those present and to bind them together as a Eucharistic community. And as for the leftovers, we do well to note that Jesus commands his disciples to gather what food remained “so that nothing will be wasted” (Jn 6:12). The coming of God’s reign brings abundance, not waste. In truth, there is no conflict between enjoying an abundance of good things, like food, and meeting the needs of one’s neighbor. God has given us these gifts in such abundance precisely so that we may all enjoy them together and be filled.

So what does all this imply for the fight against waste and hunger today? The answer is not to stop enjoying food but rather to work to ensure that all may enjoy. To be sure, addressing the problem of world hunger is a daunting task, but we cannot let the magnitude of the problem stop us from taking the first step. Jesus commands us to feed the hungry. Pope Francis describes responsible food consumption and distribution as an integral issue of environmental concern. Even John Oliver offers several concrete recommendations for what we can do to combat food waste. (See 16:00 – 16:40 of the video linked above.)

At times it may seem like any action we can take amounts to no more than a drop of charity in an ocean of indifference. But, if the story of the multiplication of the loaves tells us anything, it is that God can take the smallest of human efforts (as Jesus did with the boy’s fish and bread) and from that contribution miraculously produce a yield abundant enough to satisfy our every need.