The Stories We Tell: Shifting Food Justice Narratives

Humans are story-driven. The stories we tell about ourselves, each other, and the world are more powerful than we can imagine. Stories have the ability to captivate our imaginations, build up our strongest beliefs, and tear down our closest held assumptions. Facts and figures can establish an idea, but often, it is the stories behind the numbers that convince and compel us into action.

When it comes to issues like hunger and food insecurity, the stories we tell about how and why they occur are significant. Many of us have been led to believe individualistic narratives about people experiencing food insecurity. Often, we are told that food-insecure persons are in their position largely because of their own actions. In this mindset, hunger and food insecurity can be alleviated if people would just pull themselves up by their bootstraps. This pervasive narrative stems from the individualistic mindset that we see in the traditional understanding of the “American Dream” — anyone, no matter where they come from or how much money they have, can attain success through hard work.

Similarly, a narrative has formed that the solution to widespread food insecurity can be found in individual acts of charity. If more people would donate money or give food, we could solve world hunger. Many food ministries have adopted this mindset. While food pantries and emergency food assistance are important and provide valuable sustenance for many in need, the dominance of this narrative has led many ministries to adopt the implicit goal of delaying hunger, rather than ending hunger.

RAFI-USA’s School for Food Justice, Faith, and Storytelling (SFJFS) was created to address the narrative change needed around hunger and food insecurity. We believe that in order to combat food insecurity, we need to tell a new story, a story that challenges individual blame and individual solutions, seeks to understand and confront structural food system issues, and demands collective action and creative solutions.

The first cohort of SFJFS was convened from January to July of 2021 and was made up of people of faith from across North Carolina. The school featured guest speakers, group discussions, and interactive exercises. SFJFS began with three sessions on storytelling, then two sessions digging deeper into the injustices and inequalities of our food systems, and concluded with two sessions on practical issues, like theology and policy.

The storytelling sessions were led by the Center for Story-based Strategy (CSS) which reviewed the elements of a story, investigated problem vs. solution language, and discussed how to challenge underlying assumptions. The food system injustices sessions were led by RAFI-USA staff, surveying policy, agricultural, and racial issues. The final sessions featured a theological conversation with Ellen Davis, the Amos Ragan Kearns Distinguished Professor of Bible and Practical Theology at Duke Divinity School, and a discussion about how to schedule and execute a lobby visit with local, state, or national representatives.

Participant Mary Worsley, the pastor of Emmanuel Community Church in Winterville, North Carolina, was greatly impacted by her time with SFJFS. Mary helped establish the Hidden Manna Food Pantry which routinely served 250–300 families per week during the COVID-19 pandemic. Mary said the sessions on storytelling helped her learn how to tell the story of hunger in her community, “not just in terms of the numbers, but in terms of the people and the stories behind the hunger.” Now, Mary has the ability to talk with her congregation and community about the real people behind the data points and counteract harming narratives.

For Mary, SFJFS provided language for the inequalities and issues present in our food systems, as well. Specifically, participating in the Racial Wealth Gap Simulation during one session forced Mary to “take a step back and sit with it for a while.” The Racial Wealth Gap Simulation is a tool developed by Bread for the World that allows participants to better understand the structural inequality which has led to the racial hunger, income, and wealth gap. Another SFJFS participant, Karen Doucette, pastor of Friendship United Methodist Church in Fallston, NC, echoed Mary’s sentiment: “I never knew the history of how difficult it was for farmers of color to be able to have land, to produce whatever they wanted.”

“[Learning about] the systemic issues that are perpetuated and the consequences for people of color was astounding to me,” Mary said. “In our work with food insecurity we need to be aware of our connection to every aspect of the food system from the farmer all the way to the consumer, and we need to support each other as best we can in order to have a sustainable food future.”

SFJFS wasn’t just a place of deconstruction for Mary, though. It was also a space to imagine a way forward. A theology session with Dr. Ellen Davis helped “show us another direction for presenting the story of hunger.”

Dennis Testerman, SFJFS participant and organizer of the NC Crop Walk in Cabarrus County, appreciated the narrative re-framing work as well. A session with former contract poultry grower Craig Watts was particularly impactful for Dennis because Craig was able to articulate ways faith communities can help farmers, farmworkers, and others in the food system.

In describing his experience of the SFJFS sessions, Dennis said that he values “being in solidarity with people who want to learn more about these issues.’’ They’ve seen problems and they want to figure out how they can be part of the solution.”

Karen Doucette articulated it this way: “I always tell people that our job is to be on the side of the vulnerable and to support them,” she said. “[SFJFS] affirmed that for me.”

Mary Frances McClure, the pastor at Bethel United Methodist Church in eastern North Carolina said that farming and agriculture are crucial to the fabric of her community, and yet her church is located in a food desert. This seeming contradiction inspired Mary Frances to join the Food and Farm Council of Pitt County and to participate in SFJFS.

“SFJFS has given me another place to practice being careful about the language that we use and how we tell the story of folks who are in poverty and in food insecure communities,” Mary Frances said.

The School for Food Justice, Faith, and Storytelling sent faith leaders back into their communities energized to tell new stories: stories of abundance, not scarcity; stories of hope, not despair; stories of communities coming together to take care of each other.

If you are interested in participating in the next SFJFS cohort, please contact Michelle Osborne at michelle@rafiusa.org.

David Allen works as a Program Coordinator in the Come to the Table Program at RAFI-USA. David was born and raised in Shelby, North Carolina, and holds a Bachelor’s degree from UNC-Chapel Hill and a Masters of Divinity from Duke Divinity School. Prior to joining RAFI-USA, David worked in a variety of fields including journalism, education, and parish ministry.

RAFI-USA challenges the root causes of unjust food systems, supporting and advocating for economically, racially, and ecologically just farm communities.