This post is an edited version of a piece I wrote entitled “Working for Langar Justice” for a progressive Sikh blog called The Langar Hall. I’m excited to share it here at the Big Ceci and look forward to bringing conversations about the relationship between spirituality, food, and justice to this space.
I love food. I love to cook. I love to gather with friends, community, and sangat and share a meal together.
Because food is our most primal need and our common bond to the earth and one another, it can ground us as we stretch ourselves to draw in all the interlaced threads—so we can weave a whole, meaningful picture for ourselves. I still believe food has this unique power. With food as our starting point, we can choose to meet people and to encounter events so powerful that they jar us out of our ordinary way of seeing the world, and open us to new, uplifting, and empowering possibilities. – Frances Moore Lappe and Anna Lappe, from Hope’s Edge: The Next Diet for a Small Planet
The Sikh institution of langar has always been something near and dear to me, partially because of my borderline obsession with food, but also because it really gets to the heart of Sikhi. The practice of langar, our free community kitchen, was started some 500 years ago by Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh faith, to meet a basic human need – eating – and to create a space for community-building that reflected the Guru’s radical vision of equality. Rules about food preparation and eating were (and still are) one of the central ways that caste oppression was enforced. Langar turned this all on its head. With everyone sitting together on the same level (on the floor) and eating the same simple food, which was prepared by people from all caste backgrounds, langar was nothing short of a revolutionary accomplishment.
It is with this lens that I want to discuss the food of langar itself.
When I sit down in the langar hall (which exists in every gurdwara) to eat in that very sacred space, I rarely consider where the food is actually coming from. Yes, we very well know the labor of the volunteers from the community who prepare and distribute the food with love and with the spirit of the Guru. But what about the ingredients? What do we know about the farmers who grew and harvested the potatoes, cauliflower, and peas? Do we know if they were being paid a decent wage and treated with respect? What do we know about the living conditions of the cows from whom the milk and butter originated? And what about the handful of multinational corporations that control the majority of the world’s food supply and bring home billions in profits?
There is nothing sacred nor revolutionary about harmful pesticides (that affect farm workers, the earth, and those of us who ingest them), the exploitation of migrant farm workers, the horrendous and unnatural confinement of animals on factory farms, and the carbon footprint of having our vegetablesshipped from thousands of miles away.
I am well aware of the barriers to accessible, affordable organic, locally-sourced food in many of our communities, especially working class communities. But creative solutions do exist, from CSAs (community supported agriculture) to community gardens (imagine if large Sikh neighborhoods and/or large gurdwaras had their own community-run gardens!), farmers markets to food co-ops.
Isn’t it time we ask ourselves, as Sikhs who are so proud of our institution of langar and who love our Punjabi food: What are we doing to promote food justice, or more specifically, langar justice?
If langar is an institution that is, at its core, about equality and justice, is it unreasonable to expect ethical and just food sources for this sacred meal we share together as a sangat?
Has anyone ever come across a house of worship that makes conscious choices about where its food comes from? Any organic langar halls out there? Locavore langars?
I know we’re a long way away from this in most of our gurdwaras and communities (where styrofoam use is the unquestioned status quo!). But if Guru Nanak and his followers succeeded in creating the institution of langar in the face of one of the most ancient forms of oppression (caste) hundreds of years ago, it must be possible for us to transform the way we do langar in gurdwaras today to better reflect the values of Sikhi.