Like many religious festivals, the traditions and principles of Lent are increasingly being adopted by Christians and non-Christians alike. It is forty days of penitence, reflection, and giving up ‘unhealthy’ luxuries in exchange for abstinence and reflection. One organisation used Twitter to reveal the top 100 things people give up for Lent, including alcohol, swearing, food, chocolate, fizzy drinks, TV shows, social media…
This blog attempts to put a spin on Lent, providing five ways we could ‘take up’ rather than ‘give up’. By focusing on the positive, we can still reflect upon, and appreciate, true values in our society, culture, and environment.
Take up… food
One of the top-100 things on Twitter that people were ‘giving-up’ for Lent was food. Let’s stop right there: food is essential. However, a lot of the foods we eat are not ‘food’ per se, but ‘food products’. In an industrial food system where laboratories and factories have precedence over fields and farmers, we replace traditional ingredients with corn syrup, soy, sweeteners, preservatives, thickeners, humectants, flavour enhancers… These make food seemingly taste better, and last longer, than plain and simple ‘food’ itself.
As Michael Pollan states in his book, In Defence of Food:
“the perverse result [is] that the most healthful [and tasty] foods in the supermarket sit there quietly in the produce section…while a few aisles over in the Cereal, the Cocoa Puffs…are screaming their newfound ‘wholegrain goodness’ to the rafters”.
Even if we think we are consuming a diverse range of food products, the likelihood is that they have many more ingredients in common than you think. Take corn for example: it is used in animal feed, ethanol, high-fructose corn-syrup. That means your steak, burger bap, the salad dressing, and alcoholic drink will all include the same ingredient. Overall, 50% of our calorie intake only comes from wheat, corn and rice crops, despite there being more 7,000 crops cultivated for food throughout human history, and more than 250,000 globally identified plan species (many of them edible). Not so diverse now, is it?
So, I’m asking for you to take up ‘food’. Here are a few practices you could adopt for Lent:
- Adopt the ‘Slow Food’ movement mentality: Learn about the local soils, wild flora and fauna; and seek out traditional or regional cuisines in your region.
- Shake (or be) the hand that feeds you. Whether you’re in an urban or rural environment, you will find farmers markets. You will also find community allotments and farms, all with enthusiastic and experienced people showing you how to grow your own food. For examples of City Farms in London, check out this link.
- If shopping at the supermarket, eat foods with less than 5 ingredients on the label. You can still have your cake and eat it, but at least this way you know exactly what’s in it. Sorry Betty Crocker.
- Try one new seasonal ingredient per week. By restricting your choice, you may actually diversify your diet: you will have to go beyond your culinary comfort zones and try out new recipes.
- Brew your own. Brewing your own beer takes four to six weeks: perfect for Lent. Not only would the end result be a tribute to your patience and labour, but it would last longer, be cheaper, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by removing industrial processing, bottling and transportation of your brew. You could even go organic, or grow your own hops.
Take up… a lunch break
This may seem arbitrary, but hear me out. I am a freelancer, meaning I spend my time in numerous offices, working with a wide-range of organisations. However, one thing remains the same: the majority of people eat where they work; at their desks. Why? It’s the norm within the 9-5 job world. There is too little time, too much work, and too many ‘more important things’ to fill their free time with.
The result is that the average lunch break in the UK is less than 30-minutes, meaning that convenient ‘fast food’ is much more appetising than a freshly prepared lunch. The chronic impacts of this are significant. Cutler et al (2003) looked at the links between the decline in the ‘time-cost’ of eating and the rise in obesity in the United States. The widespread availability of fast, convenience food could explain the average 12-pound increase in people’s weight since the 1960s.
I appreciate that context matters, however when I asked my colleague (a native Italian) whether this was the same in other Western countries, she laughed. In Italy, it is ‘practically illegal’ to not take a lunch break, in fact, many shops close between 1-4pm: to savour and taste your food; to sit outside with friends; to digest food properly. In this sense, eating food is not simply fuel for work: its value as a cultural, social and, above all, delicious process is recognised as being culturally important.
Take up… alternative methods of transport
The campaign to promote people cycling and walking rather than driving has been around for years. Well loved, and still much needed in the UK, where road transportation accounts for 68% of greenhouse gas emissions, with cars and taxi emissions accounting for 43%.
Emissions aside, it is also a chance to see your city in a different way. You have the liberty of choosing a greener, more scenic route, with Google Maps now providing walking and biking routes for all cities. You can also ‘look up’. It may sound simple, but the majority of people will remain fixated on the ground or eye-level. Looking up at the sky-line allows you to see your city in a new way: you see old, intricate architecture decorating the tops of new megastores; you see trees; and you may even see herbs, fruits and vegetables as a result of the new wave of urban farming.
Take up… thinking positively
Reflecting on humanitarian crisis imagery in the media, Susan Sontag aptly stated: suffering sells. Negativity in the media is a mainstay, and arguably influences our lifestyle habits. Imagine the pessimistic consumer: what will they spend their money on or invest their time in? Excuse the assumption, but the word ‘comfort’ springs to mind: junk, processed food; alcohol; entertainment and social media. Ironically, these are all the ‘bad things’ people give up for Lent.
However, does this really achieve what Lent is about? Lent is about reflection; acknowledging our actions and mistakes, not giving-up the things that we feel bad about buying in the first place. So, rather than just focusing on our consumer choices, let’s get to the social root of the problem: a relative lack of positivity, appreciation and even love in society today.
In his fantastic TED talk, Shawn Achor talked of the ‘Happiness Advantage’, suggesting that we can retrain our brain to scan for the positives, helping us to improve both energy and wellbeing levels. Overall, happiness is a ‘work ethic…it’s something that requires our brains to train just like an athlete has to train’.
Seeing as we now know how much we like to work (see ‘Take a Lunch Break’), I recommend taking up one of the following:
- Write down a positive thing each day. This can be as simple as ‘I had dinner with my family’ or ‘I received a smile from a work colleague’.
- Take a minute to thank someone for their efforts. This could be the bus driver, an old school teacher, your parents, the local farmers or veg-box suppliers. Many ‘everyday’ actions go un-thanked, even if they have made a significant impact on your life.
- Give an act of kindness. Give someone your parking space (you won’t need it if you’re cycling), buy someone a coffee, smile.
Take up… reading or watching something that challenges you
There is now a vast amount of information on food systems available on-line in accessible, entertaining formats. Just last week, Food Tank provided a fantastic Spring Reading List, along with the Guardian recently suggesting books for the devoted development reader.
The Top 20 Social Change Documentaries, published by Films For Action, shows just how much progress there has been in educating people on initiatives surrounding seed diversity and sovereignty, edible cities, farm welfare, and the power of the ‘ordinary individual’.
However, the most insightful documentaries are those not created by us – the supposed experts in the Western world – but by those living with and responding to epidemics such as malnutrition, HIV/AIDS and drought. Websites such as Scenarios from Africa and InsightShare allow these individuals and communities to voice their own story via training and participation in scriptwriting and filming.
Hopefully one of these, whether it’s as simple as smiling or as hardcore as growing your own cabbages, will help transform your Lent. Perhaps, and excuse the pun, it will be excel-Lent; going past the forty days and positively impacting the way we value society, environment and our most intimate commodity: food.
Photograph: Sana Lee
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