By Jane Birch
“All grain is ordained for the use of man . . . to be the staff of life” (D&C 89:14).
What does “the staff of life mean”?
The “staff of life” means a “staple food.” What is a staple? According to Merriam-Webster, the word staple used as a noun means “the sustaining or principal element.” When used as an adjective, it means “principal, chief” and “used, needed, or enjoyed constantly usually by many individuals.” According to the Oxford English Dictionary, staple means “having the chief place among the articles of . . . consumption.”
According to the Word of Wisdom, the principal or chief element of our diet should be grains. Grains include grasses like wheat and rice, but corn and legumes (like beans, lentils, peas, and other pulses) can also be classified as grains.
Isn’t a Staff a Crutch?
The “staff of life” is an English idiom. An idiom is “an expression that cannot be understood from the meanings of its separate words but that has a separate meaning of its own” (Merriam-Webster). Some well-meaning Latter-day Saints have attempted to use one of the words in this idiom (“staff”) to interpret the idiom as a whole, thus misunderstanding how an idiom functions in our language. They point out that a staff is a support, a type of crutch, something used only in time of weakness and necessity, and they conclude that grain as the “staff of life” is to be used only as a support, in times of need, and not as a staple food. But as the definition of the word idiom explains, you can’t understand the meaning of an idiom by focusing on the separate words in the idiom, because the idiom as a whole has its own meaning, apart from the separate words. Think of other idioms in our language; they are unintelligible by simply studying the meaning of the individual words:
open a can of worms
pulling your leg
had a cow
It does little good to simply define the individual words; you have to understand the idiom as a whole by studying how it is used.
The idiom “staff of life” is the same. It cannot be understood by simply defining what the word “staff” means and then hypothesizing the meaning of the idiom. We understand the idiom by seeing how it has been used. Scholarly research clearly shows that the idiom “staff of life” has had a well-defined, consistent meaning throughout the long history of the English language. It clearly refers to a “staple food” (Oxford English Dictionary). The word staple means “having the chief place among the articles of . . . consumption” (Oxford English Dictionary). The Oxford English Dictionary illustrates this with examples beginning in 1638, but you can search the phrase “staff of life” on-line and find the same results (be sure to place quote marks around the phrase when you search for it).
When the Lord ordained grain to be the “staff of life,” he declared that grains should hold the chief place among the foods we consume every day. Some people are persuaded that soaking, sprouting or fermenting grains is better, and that may be fine. As long as the bulk of calories are still are coming from grains, then grains are serving as the “staff of life” in the diet.
Again, grains include grasses like wheat and rice, but corn and legumes (like beans, lentils and other pulses) can technically also be classified as grains. Other high-starch foods like roots/tubers (potatoes, cassava, yams and taro) are also staple foods in various parts of the world.
Notes “staff, n.1” Oxford English Dictionary Online (Oxford University Press, June 2014).  “staple” Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary (2013).  “staple, adj.” Oxford English Dictionary Online.
See also: Discovering the Word of Wisdom: Surprising Insights from a Whole Food, Plant-based Perspective by Jane Birch
Last updated: April 7, 2015