What Giving Up Fast Food During Lent Reminded Me About Ending Injustice

fastfromfastfood-3Honestly, I love fast food. I specifically love Wendy’s. As a teenager, I discovered their spicy chicken sandwich (add cheese for 30 cents), and that was it for me. It’s still a fixture in my diet, and I really appreciate the fast-food workers who make that happen for me on a regular basis.

During Lent, I joined nearly 1,500 people of all faiths and embarked on the Fast from Fast Food. Throughout the fast, we honored the great sacrifices workers are making in the struggle to end injustice and inequality in the fast-food industry. In the spirit of the Lenten season — when Catholics (and others who worship in the Christian tradition) intentionally incorporate fasting, prayer and almsgiving into their daily lives — we dedicated ourselves to lifting up the concerns of some of the most undervalued and underpaid of God’s children.
Speaking of children, fast-food workers are not just high school teenagers and college students looking to score extra cash; the Center for Economic and Policy Research reports that 40% are 25 or older. More than a quarter are providing for their children. And among fast-food workers over the age of 20, nearly 80% earn less than $10.10 an hour. That’s hardly a living wage. Working moms shouldn’t have to juggle multiple jobs just to keep food on the table. Working dads shouldn’t be forced to choose between rent and heat. Children shouldn’t have to grow up in poverty, yet that’s exactly what’s happening. According to a report from the University of California at Berkley, 52% of the families of front-line fast-food workers are enrolled in one or more public assistance programs. The report estimates that public assistance to families of workers in the fast-food industry costs nearly $7 billion per year.

Supporters who pledged to join the Fast from Fast Food chose to focus on the workers they encounter at fast-food chains by refraining from eating there during this period. We prayed daily for the workers and an end to income inequality.

It’s not that there isn’t enough to pay working families a living wage. In 2012, McDonald’s corporation made $5.5 billion in profits. According to a report by the public policy organization, Demos, CEOs of fast-food companies take home nearly 1,200 times what an average fast-food worker earns. Fast-food CEOs are some of the highest paid industry executives in the world.

Supporters who pledged to join the Fast from Fast Food chose to focus on the workers they encounter at fast-food chains by refraining from eating there during this period. We prayed daily for the workers and an end to income inequality. We reflected on the harmful impact of the low wages and unsafe working conditions in the industry.

Hopefully, through our prayerful solidarity, we’ve helped the faith community connect a little more to the  “Fight for 15” movement, which advocates a minimum wage of $15 an hour for fast-food workers and other undervalued and underpaid workers, such as retail workers, adjunct college professors and home health care workers.

Fasting in the spirit of Lent

My committing to this Fast from Fast Food was a real challenge, as noted by my coworkers and friends. For Lent, we fast from or “give up” something important to us. For me, going without a Wendy’s chicken sandwich with cheese was really a sacrifice. I highlighted the sacrifice as an important reminder to others: that I am doing this fast, and that it’s not easy.

“He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”  — Micah 6:8

Folks in the faith-rooted justice world love this verse. In Chapter 6, Micah rebukes the Israelites. He tells them they’re doing it wrong. As followers of Christ, we’re often doing it wrong too. In fact, the above paragraph is an excellent example of me doing it wrong. It’s actually not the “giving up” that demonstrates my commitment to God. The Israelites thought all sorts of sacrifices would be pleasing to God: cows, rams, oil, their children. Micah says, “No guys, in all things, build a more just world and be merciful and loving to others … all others. Oh, and be humble when you’re doing it, because it’s not about you, it’s about God.”

So, while participating in the Fast from Fast Food was a gesture that I found deeply challenging, it is not the sacrifice of tasty chicken sandwiches that God asks of me. The Fast from Fast Food isn’t actually about me individually; it is about God and building God’s Kingdom the way we’ve been instructed. It’s about bringing justice to a morally corrupt fast-food industry. It’s about loving workers and echoing their voices so they’re heard. It’s about humbly calling for an economic system that values the contributions of all those who participate.

“The world tells us to seek success, power and money; God tells us to seek humility, service and love,” Pope Francis says to us, echoing Micah’s rebukes to the Israelites.

If we could keep that at the heart of our fasts and throughout our journey supporting fast-food workers, other underpaid workers and people whose human dignity the economy refuses to acknowledge, we can confront these new idols head on.

April 15, many fasters plan to do just that. Nourished in spirit by community, solidarity and prophetic witness we’ve encountered during the Fast from Fast Food, we plan to join workers, community groups and faith institutions at rallies supporting a moral economy, and wages and working conditions that reflect the human dignity inherent in all of God’s children. I invite you to join us in your own community.