Harvest: From Field to Fork

Mini-Reflection #76 (17th September 2023 at Essex Church / Kensington Unitarians)

When we gather together each autumn for our little Harvest Festival here at church I get a sense of being part of a long line – a very very long line – of humans who have been doing something similar for many generations. It’s a tradition that transcends religious boundaries and national borders – after all, we all need to eat – and throughout history our ancestors will have been quite aware of the precariousness of their situation, and their dependence on a good harvest, in order to survive.

I don’t know about you, but for most of my life, I confess, I have somewhat taken it for granted that there would be food on the table. I’ve been very lucky to grow up in what felt, to me, like a time of plenty (living in one of the world’s richest countries and, until quite recently, in a time of relative political and economic stability, with a functioning social security system… and I’m not sure we can say that’s the case any more). Although my family were never rolling in it when I was growing up, not by any means, we were never in serious danger of going hungry either. I am used to a world where the supermarkets shelves are full of fresh produce, where an ever-increasing variety of new and unusual fruit and veg from around the world makes its way to our shores, where farmer’s markets and corner shops catering to all comers in our multicultural city have opened us up to new horizons. Which is, of course, all well and good if you can afford it. And, indeed, if the planet can afford it, in terms of the energy and pollution involved in the production and transport of produce.

Like I said, I have been lucky to live in such times, and in relatively privileged circumstances, to be able to take pleasure in food, rather than having to worry too much about where the next meal is coming from. I know a lot of people all over the world, and all likelihood including people in our gathering today, have not been (and are not) so fortunate. Of course, in living memory here in Britain, we had food rationing through World War Two, continuing into the 1950s. I remember my parents and grandparents talking about their experience of wartime food shortages – in fact I am sure my mum said that they grew veg on top of their Anderson bomb shelter and kept chickens when she was a kid in Poplar – whatever they could do to supplement their very skimpy rations of the bare essentials. The experience of scarcity shaped the attitudes of a generation, who could never take it for granted that food would be plentiful, and were assiduous about avoiding food waste for the rest of their days.

I’ve given today’s service the subtitle ‘From Field to Fork’ – which makes it sound simple, doesn’t it? – and I suppose in some ways it still is. For those of us who are lucky enough to have access to a garden or an allotment – and the time, energy, and physical capacity it takes to work our little patch of land – the journey from field to fork can be short. A few of us brought in our home-grown produce to show off on the central table: Juliet’s potatoes, and my tomatoes, grown in our respective gardens. A splendid pumpkin from Pat and John’s allotment (and some of Jack’s allotment goodies too). It’s wonderful to be able to grow your own food (though I don’t think any of us are self-sufficient yet…)

And, in reality, none of us are ever going to be self-sufficient, are we? We are deeply interdependent. Most of us, most of the time, are currently reliant on a complex global network for our food. And over the last few years we’ve become increasingly aware of the fragility of the supply chain, haven’t we? – empty shelves and shortages of stock have become much more common sights of late – for a multitude of interconnected reasons. Climate change has destabilised growing conditions for many, alternately bringing droughts then floods to many regions that have traditionally fed the world. Geopolitical instability has pushed up energy prices and interrupted food production in many factories. Knock-on effects from Brexit have led to difficulties and delays at our borders, worker shortages, and reportedly caused some producers to give up on importing and exporting to Britain altogether. Bird flu has disrupted egg and poultry production. All of these factors – and more that I’ve not touched on, including corporate greed, I have no doubt – these factors have pushed up food prices for all. We know that many people have been pushed to the brink; food banks are desperately oversubscribed.

I know none of this is news to you. But on the day of our harvest festival it seems really important – especially for us as city-dwellers – that we get real about the complicated journey from field to fork. Our systems of food production clearly illustrate the deep interdependence of all life on this planet.
So let us be mindful of our responsibility to each other, and to the environment, on which we depend. Let us keep in our awareness those who go hungry, and let us work towards a more just world, one in which resources are more fairly shared, such that all beings get what they need to survive and thrive. Let us be aware of the fragility, the precarity, of our harvest – let’s not take the harvest for granted – let us give thanks for our daily bread (and our daily tomatoes, potatoes, pumpkins and all the rest…)

And, in that spirit, I invite you to join in a responsive prayer of harvest thanksgiving. I haven’t printed out all the words for you but there is a simple refrain, which is printed in your order of service: ‘Spirit of Life, God of All Love, we give thanks for life’s blessings’.

Responsive Prayer of Harvest Thanksgiving:

Let us give thanks, this harvest-time,
for all the colours and forms of creation
that populate this precious earth,
and for our place within it;
Spirit of Life, God of All Love,
we give thanks for life’s blessings.

For our daily food, and for
those whose work and skill
bring your good gifts to us;
Spirit of Life, God of All Love,
we give thanks for life’s blessings.

For the gifts and graces inspired in human minds and hearts;
for insight and imagination, and the skills of research
which bring healing and fulfilment to the lives of many;
Spirit of Life, God of All Love,
we give thanks for life’s blessings.

For the light and shades of the changing seasons,
and their variety and their dependability;
for new life and growth out of barrenness and decay;
Spirit of Life, God of All Love,
we give thanks for life’s blessings.

For new hope and strength in our communities,
especially in this church congregation, and
among all you call to serve the Good,
Spirit of Life, God of All Love,
we give thanks for life’s blessings.

For all in whose lives we see goodness,
kindness, gentleness, patience and humility,
those souls who embody all the fruits of the Spirit,
Spirit of Life, God of All Love,
we give thanks for life’s blessings.

For the life we have been given,
and for all those whom
you have given us to share it,
Spirit of Life, God of All Love,
we give thanks for life’s blessings. Amen.

Reflection by Jane Blackall

An audio recording of this sermon is available: