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Food and Faith

By Sheila Mulrooney Eldred
How public health and religion are teaming up to save waistlines—and lives—through a novel approach to eating.

Two years ago, Jason Jordan-Griffin had a health concern, one that afflicts some 70 percent of his fellow Americans. He was overweight. The pastor at Union Memorial United Methodist Church in Baltimore felt the burden not just of these extra pounds but also of the mixed message he was sending from the pulpit. He worried that he wasn’t living up to the tenets of 1 Corinthians 3:16, which says in part: “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.”

Jordan-Griffin believed he should practice what he preached. “When you start talking about health and the body being a temple, and that our job is to care for it, I realized I couldn’t stand up and preach those things without doing it,” Jordan-Griffin says. 

In 2015, Jordan-Griffin and his church participated in a six-week program being run by Johns Hopkins Community Health Partnership and the Center for a Livable Future of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Called “Food and Faith,” the workshop combined lessons on healthy eating created by a nutritionist, with Scripture-based nutrition reflections supplied by a minister.  It focused on evidenced-based nutrition, and on eating as an environmental and a moral act, not just as a matter of basic sustenance. Food, the program emphasized, connects humans to the earth, to one another, and to the creator. The instructors taught how eating healthy, sustainable, and humanely produced whole foods could improve health. The course also showed how a congregation could work as a community to eat well, and support one another in the process.

The program’s faith-based grounding, combined with its nutritional counseling, resonated with Jordan-Griffin. In a world of ever-shifting messaging around nutrition—orange juice is a good source of vitamin C one week but too sugary to drink the next—he felt confident in what he was hearing. “In a setting that you’re familiar with, the church, where you get instruction from a biblical perspective, with the nutrition information and history on top of it, then you can say, oh, OK, that makes sense.” Soon, he was swapping the usual fried chicken and canned green beans at his family’s dinner table for sautéed chicken breast and fresh greens with lemon juice, tomatoes, and turmeric. Jordan-Griffin overhauled his family’s eating habits, and in the process he lost 20 pounds.

The Food and Faith workshop was an initiative of the Baltimore Faith and Food Project, which was founded in 2007. Since then, it has partnered with some 225 congregations in the Baltimore area to help deliver the message of healthy eating through a spiritual and social justice approach. The Johns Hopkins project is not alone in its mission. Across the country, health advocates and faith leaders are working together to spread the word in churches, synagogues, temples, and mosques about good eating habits. Today, congregants are working out in churches and planting fruit orchards in cities, and some ministries, such as Garden Church in Long Beach, California, have even been founded with food as their central mission. In 2016, the American Council on Exercise recognized faith-based fitness as one of the year’s top trends, citing the proliferation of gyms and even personal trainers at churches across the nation.

The aim is to bring clear information about a healthy lifestyle and attainable food goals into congregations in order to help reverse a disturbing national trend. The most recent stats from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that 36.5 percent of U.S. adults are considered obese, and half the population consumes daily less than a cup of fruit and less than 1.5 cups of vegetables. These habits correlate with rising levels of heart disease, the leading cause of death in the United States, and the prevalence of diabetes.

Meanwhile, an estimated 86 million people have prediabetes, which is characterized by high blood sugar, but nine out of 10 of them don’t know it. This makes it tricky for traditional public health initiatives to help through clinics or hospitals, says Anne Palmer, director of the Food Communities and Public Health program, based in the Center for a Livable Future. “There are people you reach through congregations that you won’t reach in any other way,” Palmer says. “Public health practitioners are using a range of strategies in an attempt to change behavior, looking for a more effective method. Why not religion? Not just the network of religion but the language and methods of communication of religious institutions to convey our important health messages.”

The Baltimore Faith and Food Project staff has helped plant 50 community gardens that have grown thousands of pounds of produce, and has offered cooking classes to teach how to use the harvest. The program hosts regular educational outreach events and trainings to inform people about food system issues—such as how to eat well even in food deserts that lack good grocery stores—and how to increase self-efficacy and adopt sustainable food practices. The staff has hosted radio town hall–styled conversations on nutrition, while downloadable curricula for summer camp and Sunday school help teach kids healthy habits. From growing food and mastering composting, to bringing healthier dishes to the Sunday potluck, the Baltimore Faith and Food Project has been successful in changing how people relate to one another and their food. “The message that comes through in the faith community is a different message. It’s an emotional connection,” Palmer says.

From growing food and mastering composting, to bringing healthier dishes to the Sunday potluck, the Baltimore Faith and Food Project has been successful in changing how people relate to one another and their food.

Pairing food and faith is nothing new, of course. Jewish dietary laws prohibit certain meats and all shellfish, as well as any food preparation that combines milk and meat. In Buddhism, nonviolence means no meat, dairy, or eggs, and dessert is reserved for special occasions. Christianity professes the communion of bread and wine, while the Bible warns against excess: “It is not good to eat much honey, nor is it glorious to seek one’s own glory.” Islam avoids “haram” foods and practices fasting. The Koran says to “eat and drink but waste not in extravagance.”

Judaism, points out Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin, has always been an agrarian religion. In 2011, Cardin founded the Baltimore Orchard Project to help bring fruit to people living in food deserts, and today her group has planted trees with over 100 organizations. “The production and consumption of food—our kosher laws—play a significant role in our practice and identity,” Cardin says. “But many other faith communities also emphasize what you eat and the way you eat it. Many other faiths want to know that the land and animals were taken care of in producing food, and many offer some sort of structure of prayer around eating. To these religions, meals are not about just stuffing food in your mouth. They see meals as a sacred act in communion with others.”

The trend of food coupled with faith gained momentum in 2011 when a California pastor named Rick Warren promoted the Daniel Plan, a 40-day Bible-based diet, to his congregants. The program, he claims, has helped more than 15,000 people lose over 260,000 pounds, in large part because it fosters community support. Changing a habit is never easy, particularly when it comes to food, but this diet works, according to the literature about the program, “when done in a supportive community of friends because God designed us to thrive in relationships.”

Healthy eating and sustainable food production in religious communities are now becoming a part of the pedagogy at divinity schools. The schools are in a prime position to teach food and health as a part of training religious leaders, says Fred Bahnson, director of the Food, Health, and Ecological Well-Being Program at Wake Forest University School of Divinity and author of Soil and Sacrament: A Spiritual Memoir of Food and Faith. “We’re focusing on faith leaders, on a ‘train the trainer’ model,” Bahnson says. “We’re targeting religious leaders in their formation as divinity students. I think of this as planting seeds that may not be harvested for years or decades to come.”

Classes in the Food, Health, and Ecological Well-Being program range from “Food & Faith in the World of the Hebrew Bible” and “Field, Table, Communion” to “Culinary Culture in Black Religious Experience,” and workshops in bread baking, permaculture, and community organizing.

Illustration of hands peeling an apple
Mark Smith

In 2014, on a bus carrying 50 Christians to spend the day at an organic farm outside Baltimore, Darriel Harris preached about food.

“When God created humans, he blessed them and gave them instructions for taking care of the earth, and on what to eat,” Harris said, as the bus rolled through the outskirts of Baltimore toward White Rose Farm’s two-acre, biodynamic garden in Taneytown, Maryland.

Harris read passages from the Bible’s book of Genesis, with the smooth confidence of a minister. “God doesn’t give many instructions, so the instructions he does give are really important,” he explained. “God doesn’t tell Adam and Eve how to build a house, or reproduce. There are so many things God doesn’t tell them. But God does tell them specifically what to eat. God says, eat fruits and vegetables. The body was designed for us to consume fruits and vegetables, and for that to be our sustenance.”

The people on the trip had come from five churches across the Greater Baltimore area. While each was committed to fostering spiritual health, they hadn’t quite made a connection between religion and nutrition. At least, not yet. Harris, the project coordinator of the Baltimore Faith and Food Project at the time, hoped that getting their hands dirty and cooking at a farm might inspire the group to incorporate healthy foods into their church. The group spent the day harvesting potatoes, turnips, beets, broccoli, and herbs, and cooking over an open fire. They ended by sharing a communal meal. The experience inspired several participants to return to their congregations and plant gardens on church grounds.

“I was trying to broaden their imaginations,” says Harris, 36, an ordained minister with the American Baptist Church who holds a Master of Divinity degree from Duke University. “They’re not going to become organic farmers overnight, but I was hoping people would start small gardens or look for some of the vegetables we saw at their farmer’s market.” These experiences, he says, create positive, lasting links with healthy food.

Harris, who was raised in Severn, located just outside Baltimore City, realized the powerful combination of faith and health on a trip far from home. After completing his final year at Duke Divinity School, Harris traveled to the South Sudan for his first assignment as an ordained minister. He was to partner with a public health student to provide health expertise, but the person never showed up. Harris was then tasked by Duke with initiating a project that might help address several behavior-based diseases plaguing South Sudan. Harris wondered whether he could make inroads by incorporating Bible lessons. “Whenever there was a Christianity-related [event], people would come out,” he says.

The group spent the day harvesting potatoes, turnips, beets, broccoli, and herbs, and cooking over an open fire. They ended by sharing a communal meal. The experience inspired several participants to return to their congregations and plant gardens on church grounds.

Mosquito nets are a simple way to help prevent malaria, so Harris decided to start there. He would gather groups together and tell the story of Mary giving birth to Jesus. Then he would ask questions: Why did Mary wrap the baby Jesus in swaddling clothes? Why not lay him in the manger naked? The answers came easily. To keep Jesus warm. To keep insects away. To keep him clean. So, he continued, if Mary was in South Sudan, do you think she would cover baby Jesus or let mosquitoes bite him? They agreed she would cover the baby. The approach worked, and people began to use more netting.

Harris decided to bring this approach closer to home, and to work in his own community. He was hired in 2013 to lead the Baltimore Faith and Food Project around the same time the Center for a Livable Future issued a report that one in four of the city’s residents lives in a food desert with limited access to healthy food. Harris helped shift the program’s focus from ecology to increasing the accessibility of healthy food. He, along with other staff, would go on to develop the workshops that led to Jordan-Griffin’s weight loss.

A small but growing body of research shows the benefits of the religion-meets-healthy eating approach. One of the first studies on faith and food, published in 2005 in Health Psychology, focused on a program implemented in 16 African-American churches in Atlanta where obesity was prevalent among the middle- and upper-class congregants. The researchers recruited 1,056 participants and trained church members in counseling their peers on diet habits and on meaningful reasons for change. Pastors were also asked to mention the program from the pulpit, and churches offered healthy food options at events and celebrations. After one year, the participants averaged a one-serving-a-day uptick in fruit and vegetable consumption compared to a control group. Researcher Ken Resnicow, a professor of health behavior at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health, calls it a “modest but legitimate” effect. “It’s not enough to make a big dent in morbidity or mortality,” Resnicow says of the results, “but such interventions have few downsides. There are no side effects from trial medications. No risks from experimental procedures.”

Resnicow believes the peer counseling played a significant role in the program’s success. The program, now called Body & Soul, has been funded by the American Cancer Society and the National Cancer Institute, and has been replicated in hundreds of churches.

The promise of this peer-counseling approach spurred a New York University School of Medicine–led study called “Faith-based Approaches in the Treatment of Hypertension.” The study examined whether a faith- and lifestyle-based program through New York City churches could better reduce hypertension. The program uses trained members of the church, rather than outside health experts, to lead health education sessions. The results are set to be released this year.

“They’re not going to become organic farmers overnight, but I was hoping people would start small gardens or look for some of the vegetables we saw at their farmers’ market.”

Now Harris is adding to this body of research. He became so immersed in the work at the Baltimore Faith and Food Project that he is pursuing a doctoral degree in public health through the Bloomberg School of Public Health. For his dissertation, he is analyzing whether delivering nutrition lessons in scriptural or scientific language is more effective for Christian audiences. As Harris delves deeper into his dissertation, he’s passed the leadership of the project to Adrian Mosley, who has partnered with Harris over the years to organize faith-based workshops. Mosley is herself a convert: She had a wake-up call when her doctor told her she was borderline diabetic after 12 years of a mostly sedentary lifestyle, while taking care of her ailing husband. By cutting out junk food, soda, and added sugar—except for a weekly brownie—Mosley lost 30 pounds and stopped taking medication for high blood pressure. “Remaining healthy is part of my spiritual journey,” says Mosley, who has worked for more than 20 years in community health. “I am called to have life and have it more abundantly.”

The spiritual calling to better health is paying off for former program participants like Jordan-Griffin. Today, he has kept those 20 pounds off, and he and his family continue to eat well. He posts photos on Facebook of meals he cooks, such as a veggie-loaded dish with sweet and sour beef and brown rice, accompanied with #HubbyCares and #IBeChefin. The Baltimore Faith and Food Program had such an influence on him that when Jordan-Griffin became the pastor at a new church, where many of his congregants are on blood pressure medication, he made a call and asked Johns Hopkins to bring the workshop there.

Illustration of a man in a field with a wheelbarrow, raising up his arms as beams of light shine forth
Mark Smith

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