Is feeding the hungry, a key moral value in religious teachings across cultures? I was recently asked this by a pediatrician concerned about child hunger in low income communities in the U.S. This piece weaves together contributions from our anthropological hive mind, after I posted her query on two anthropological digital platforms.
It is impossible to overstate the importance of reciprocal food exchange to the maintenance of group cohesion and egalitarianism in horticultural and foraging societies–through daily and seasonal practices grounded in and by myth and ritual (Rapaport 1979, 1984, 1999). To give just one example among many, a Yanomami hunter cannot eat the animals he kills, but must share the meat with his family and others and “…the reciprocal exchange of meat and other foods between individuals becomes a critical factor for the maintenance of village cohesion” (Good 1989, 131). (Also, for a broad look at the intertwining of food and social life in all societies, see Mintz and DuBois 2002.)
Ceremonial food distribution
Akissi Britton says, “In Orisa traditions of the Yoruba (of Nigeria) and Yoruba diaspora–Afro-Cuban Lucumi and Brazilian Candomble–while there is not the same “mandate” as in the Abrahamic faiths, there is absolutely a concept of food sharing that is an important part of ritual. After many large (and small) rituals in which animal sacrifice takes place, for the ritual to “take” or be completed it is essential for the food to be prepared and shared with the community. There is also the practice of feeding those who come to do the long and hard labor of ceremony, which is a sign of reciprocity and giving thanks to the workers of ceremony” (personal communication, Akissi Britton, December 2020, for more, see Perez 2016).
In Sikhism, equitable sharing of food is particularly central to Sikh identity and practice — in the tradition of the langar (or free kitchen). In Gurudwaras (Sikh temples), this volunteer run, community kitchen is very important. According to tradition, it was started by the first Sikh Guru, Guru Nanak, who possibly drew from a 4th century reform food practice in Hinduism. Guru Nanak specifically designed langar to inculcate equality that breaks down barriers of religion, caste, race, creed, age, gender, or social status. The value of equality is embodied in the great care taken to create seating arrangements that put everyone on an equal level, and volunteers are carefully trained in the values and traditional protocols for equal and courteous service for all regardless of their status. This practice has globalized with the Sikh diaspora, and langars around the world often attract many hundreds, including many unhoused people. (For more, see Nesbitt 2016.)
Pervasive practices of food sharing throughout the many varieties of Hinduism give moral value to the giving of food and the renunciation of greed for food (even while food taboos are key mechanisms in maintaining caste and other hierarchies and inequalities). Food is distributed to the poor from temples as part of AnnaDaan – ritual food donation, and in the giving of Prasad (food distributed as a blessing). Merit is gained from alms given to mendicants who ask for food (whether because of poverty or as part of a spiritual vow).
In Buddhism, general practices of compassion include food sharing. For instance in Theravada countries, such as Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Myanmar, food redistribution is often directed toward monks, and temples often redistribute the excess to any who come to their grounds, as well as in frequent holidays.
Care for those who are on the margins of societal provisioning is a recurrent admonition in Muslim, Jewish, and Christian scriptures, with repeated stated obligations to feed widows, orphans, and even the stranger, and strong injunctions to charitable giving of food in general.
The dynamic interplay between the needs of self and neighbor can be seen in one of the most important Muslim scriptures regarding hunger: “He is not a believer, who having filled his stomach, went and slept all the night while his neighbor remained hungry although he was aware of it (72 Hadith Al-Ausat by Rabrani).” Some interpretations of this principle include a strong class analysis: Hadith Number 8: The Reason for Zakat, A Trial for the Wealthy:
On the authority of Abi Abdullah (Imam) al-Sadiq (peace be upon him): Zakat has only been enforced as a trial for the rich and as a provision for the needy. Were people to carry out the zakat of their wealth, no Muslim would remain poverty-stricken and needy; he would manage with that which Allah has decreed. Indeed, people are only impoverished, needy, hungry and unclothed as a result of the sins of the wealthy. (Man La Yahdhuruhu al-Faqih, Volume 2, page 7)
These scriptural injunctions shape daily practices in fascinatingly complex ways (Benthall and Bellion-Jourdan 2009, Deeb 2006, Taylor 2015).
Food sovereignty: decolonizing our understanding of food equity
Indigenous movements are distilling ideas of food sovereignty that emphasize that moral questions about the distribution of food must be embedded in rights to land and production (Cote 2016; Grey and Patel 2014; Mihesuah and Hoover; Vernon 2015). Cherokee scholar Jeff Corntassel says “Without the ability of community members to continuously renew their relationships with the natural world (i.e., gathering medicines, hunting and fishing, basket-making, etc.), indigenous languages, traditional teachings, family structures, and livelihoods of that community are all jeopardized” (Corntassel 2008, 118). These movements engage contemporary struggles with perspectives that draw on traditional wisdom and practices, while situating claims within universal human rights frameworks (for more on rights to food in international human rights frameworks, see Messer 2004). This cosmological and moral vision is grounded in dynamic, living, placed relationships among land, ecology, and humans that reconnect the production and consumption of food into local social and cultural webs of mutual responsibilities and relationships and “…challenges the hegemony of the globalized, neoliberal, industrial, capital-intensive, corporate-led model of agriculture that created destructive economic policies that marginalized small-scale farmers, removed them from their land, and forced them into the global market economy as wage laborers…[and] requires examining the efforts being made by Indigenous communities to restore these relationships through the revitalization of their Indigenous foods and ecological knowledge systems” (Cote 2016, 2).
What can public anthropology contribute to the multistakeholder effort to end hunger?
It is difficult to summarize anthropological knowledge on this topic–for the general public or for policy makers–because there is such a lavish variety of cultural expression in norms about feeding the hungry. But, anthropologists have a lot to contribute to public conversations about food equity and the role of religion. Specifically, we can help to make real the poetics, power, and appeal of these forms of human generosity across diverse traditions, to support broad collaborations and inter-cultural appreciation of the diversity of gifts that different religious traditions bring to ending hunger. These thick descriptions of cultural diversity can provide evidence for a different view of human nature from that embedded in much of our hyper-competitive and increasingly unequal society. Public debates about hunger in the early 21st century are continually distorted by the undertow of several centuries of market ideologies that attribute a magical capacity of market competition to solve social problems of inequitable distribution. This magical market cosmology can make hunger seem inevitable because inequality looks natural if competitiveness is deemed the dominant trait of human nature (Reid and Taylor 2010).
Emerging Indigenous voices can make particular contributions because they bring a different grounding to these questions from religions grounded in scriptural injunctions. For instance, scriptural calls to feed the hungry in Abrahamic traditions have a universalizing force and clarity. But, Indigenous spiritual practices rooted in land- and community-based practices bring different powers and perspectives for ethical action that very directly engage issues of equity and justice around the full food chain (from production to consumption to regenerative recycling).
Acknowledgements: I thank Deborah A. Frank for posing the original question, which I posted onto the American Anthropological Association and the Environment and Anthropology Society listservs. Many thanks to those who responded with helpful scholarly citations or their distillations of literatures in areas of their expertise (shown in parentheses): Leslie Sponsel (Amazonia and Hinduism); Robin Hide (New Guinea); Akissi Britton (Yoruba); Murray Leaf, Jerome Krace, Shahbaz Ahma, and Devayani Tirthali (Hinduism); Devayani Tirthali and Robert Williams (Sikhism); Christopher Taylor (Islam).
Betsy Taylor is a cultural anthropologist and Executive Director of the Livelihoods Knowledge Exchange Network (www.likenknowledge.org). Over the past 25 years, she has worked for community-driven development in Appalachia the U.S., and in South Asia — seeking to integrate issues of health, agriculture, forestry, culture and environmental stewardship.
Benthall, Jonathan & Bellion-Jourdan, J. 2009. The Charitable Crescent: Politics of Aid in the Muslim World. London: I.B. Tauris. 2nd ed.
Corntassel, J. 2008. “Toward sustainable self determination: Rethinking the contemporary Indigenous-rights discourse”. Alternatives: Global, Local, Political.33(1): 105–132.
Cote, Charlotte. 2016. “‘Indigenizing’ Food Sovereignty: Revitalizing Indigenous Food Practices and Ecological Knowledges in Canada and the United States”. Humanities. 5:57(1-14).
Deeb, Lara. 2006. An Enchanted Modern: Gender and Public Piety in Shi’i Lebanon. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Good, Kenneth. 1989. “Yanomami Hunting Patterns: Trekking And Garden Relocation As An Adaptation To Game Availability In Amazonia, Venezuela”. PhD Dissertation. University of Florida.
Grey, Sam and Raj Patel. 2014. “Food sovereignty as decolonization: some contributions from Indigenous movements to food system and development politics”. Agriculture and Human Values. 32: 431–444.
Messer, Ellen. 2004. “Hunger and human rights”. In Human Rights: the Scholar as Activist. Carole Nagengast and Carlos G. Velez-Ibanez (Eds.). Oklahoma City: Society for Applied Anthropology. Pp. 43-64.
Mihesuah, Devon and Elizabeth Hoover (Eds.). 2019. Indigenous Food Sovereignty in the United States: Restoring Cultural Knowledge, Protecting Environments, and Regaining Health. University of Oklahoma Press.
Mintz, Sidney W. and Christine M. DuBois. 2002. “The Anthropology of Food and Eating”. Annual Review of Anthropology. 31:99-119.
Nesbitt, Eleanor. 2016. Sikhism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Pérez, Elizabeth. 2016. Religion in the Kitchen: Cooking, Talking, and the Making of Black Atlantic Traditions. New York: New York University Press.
Rappaport, R.A. 1979. Ecology, Meaning and Religion. Richmond: North Atlantic Books.
Rappaport, R.A. 1984. Pigs for the Ancestors. 2nd edition. New Haven: Yale University Press. (Reissued Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press, 2000)
Rappaport, R.A. 1999. Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Reid, Herbert and Betsy Taylor. 2010. Recovering the Commons: Democracy, Place, and Global Justice. Urbana: University of Illinois.
Taylor, Christopher. 2015. Islamic Charity in India: Ethical Entrepreneurism and the Ritual, Revival, and Reform of Zakat among a Muslim Minority. PhD dissertation in Anthropology. Boston University. https://open.bu.edu/handle/2144/13993 in OpenBU.
Vernon, Rachel. 2015. “A Native Perspective: Food Is More Than Consumption”. Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development. 5:4(137-142).