Food “Ethics”

Filed under: Con Spirito, Improvisando — Jess at 2:06 pm on Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Winter issue of the UUWorld has yet another article about “ethical” eating, in response to the General Assembly’s choice of this as a Study Action Issue for our congregations. And, once again, the issue is boiled down simply to the areas of animal welfare, buying local, and organics.

Can I just say that I am very tired of the inference that anyone who doesn’t eat only organic, local, free-range, etc, food is somehow unethical?

Let’s look at this word, “ethical,” and its connotations. Ethical means “pertaining to or dealing with morals or the principles of morality; pertaining to right and wrong in conduct.”

So when we talk about food choices, particularly the differences between organic and conventionally-raised foods and not even getting into the meat issue, and we use the word “ethical” as a descriptor for choosing organic, we are saying that to not choose organic is to be immoral, or wrong in conduct.

But that doesn’t take into account the very real barriers for many people, including my family, to eat only “ethically” raised food — the biggest of which is economic.

I feed a family of four on a budget. Organic, free-range turkey in my area is at least $8 a pound, not the $6.05 quoted in the UUWorld article, meaning a turkey large enough to feed us and our Thanksgiving guests, with the obligatory leftovers, is about $100. That’s about how much I spend on groceries in an entire week. So, since the organic, free-range turkey is simply beyond my means, does that mean I am ethically obligated to cancel Thanksgiving?

Sorry, but I call bullshit.

The framing of this issue, particularly in the UUWorld, is yet another example of the assumption that to be a Unitarian Universalist one has to be a rich, Prius-driving, vegan who shops only at farmers’ markets and Whole Foods. And I am so tired of it.

The actual resource guide for the Study Action Issue is full of interesting material and emphasizes human rights, hunger and malnutrition issues, but still does not get at the divisions within our own individual religious communities around this issue, which are mostly economic. I’d like to see congregations and individuals tackle this on a very local, personal level, rather than beating the organic-only drum even louder than we already do. Yes, attention should be paid to the environmental impact of food production as a global issue, and to the vast differences in the availability of food in various parts of the world, but there’s also a lot to be said about what is happening in our own backyards.

Wouldn’t it be a more meaningful statement of our values to examine the food, nutrition and hunger issues in our own communities, rather than making what end up being rather meaningless diatribes about global dynamics? Wouldn’t starting locally end up making more of an actual difference, in the real world of family budgets and strapped food pantries?

And can you please stop telling me I’m doing something wrong by not being able to afford only organic food?

11 Singers in the Choir

Comment by Chalicechick

November 13, 2008 @ 6:25 pm

Hey, there’s always tofurkey…

who doesn’t particularly mean that as a serious suggestion

Comment by Obijuan

November 13, 2008 @ 6:52 pm

I recommend the polar opposite of the tofurkey — the turducken!

Comment by Jess

November 13, 2008 @ 7:45 pm

CC — that’s good, because Tofurkey actually costs more than organic, free-range turkey. ;-)

Comment by Joel Monka

November 13, 2008 @ 8:51 pm

Three cheers, Jess! I agree with every word.

Comment by kari

November 13, 2008 @ 9:22 pm


Comment by Lizard Eater

November 13, 2008 @ 11:47 pm

Just blogged on my site about the article.

Can’t stop shaking my head.

We’d rather be “right” than help people. Or grow.

Holier than thou. Forgot to put that in my post. Self-righteous.

Okay, now I’m just spluttering. Obama said it best, in an off the cuff remark picked up by Newsweek, “Well, the truth is, Brian, we can’t solve global warming because I f—ing changed light bulbs in my house. It’s because of something collective.”

Guess what UU’s … if we want to do something collective, there’s gotta be more of us. And this ain’t the way to get that.

Comment by The Eclectic Cleric

November 14, 2008 @ 9:36 am

I’ve been struggling quite a bit lately with the ethical/spiritual implications of my food choices, especially since my cancer diagnosis, and my new-found sensibility to how much bad choices I made in the past about what i put into my body have had serious consequences for me in the here and now. Haven’t read the UU World article though, and will probably wait to do so for a time when I won’t have to worry about what it will do to my blood pressure. There is often a disgusting amount of privileged, sanctimonious, self-righteous elitism in the things we UUs say and do, combined all too often with the hypocrisy of failing to practice what we preach. As a (single) minister I’ve eaten way too many meals shoved into my car at the drive-thru window as I rush from one commitment to another, and I’ve attended far too many potlucks and other social gatherings where I felt it was expected of me to taste a little bit of everything, and to take home all the leftovers as well! Meanwhile, I wish I still had the “discipline” to eat local, to eat seasonally, to eat organic/vegetarian (or at least “semi-veg”) and even to fast occasionally, like the “mystics, skeptics, and dyspeptics” who so inspired me when I was a seminarian. But so far the best I’ve been able to do is banish chips, cookies, candy and cokes (except for the small diet cokes) from my larder and thence hopefully from my life. (Chocolate, BTW, is not considered a candy around here…although I do try to consume it in moderation). And yes, affordability is always an issue; food is very cheap these days compared to other periods of human history, but that fresh fruit from South America still carries with it a pretty substantial carbon footprint. In any event, I do believe that ministers have a responsibility to set a good example for their flock, and I’m not so sure I’ve really succeeded at that in this arena. But I do feel inspired to try a little harder. And maybe that’s all any of us should expect.

Comment by Sarah

November 14, 2008 @ 6:31 pm

Testify, yo.
After reading this L.A. Times article last week: http://www.latimes.com/features/health/fitness/la-he-cheapfood3-2008nov03,0,2379039.story
my frustration with the foodie elite came surging right back. Whether it’s driven by “ethics” or an “evolved palate,” such distaste for popularly available and affordable foodstuffs really burns my biscuits. Judge not, you exclusionary nimrods! Especially in tough economic times and the winter months when food can often be the most immediate source of comfort available.
Recently even Epicurious has been writing about the resurgence of “comfort food,” and with the snark filter set on low: http://www.epicurious.com/articlesguides/blogs/editor/2008/10/the-coming-age.html
Screw ‘em all, I’ll make a batch of apple dumplings with pre-packaged refrigerated rolls and Mountain Dew this weekend and refuse to feel bad about it!

Comment by Jess

November 14, 2008 @ 8:01 pm

I love those dumplings. *drool*

There also seems to be a bias against taking time to cook healthy food from standard ingredients. How many “20 minute meals” recipes have you seen with only “ordinary” ingredients listed? I’ve stopped getting Real Simple and Cooking Light magazines because of the preponderance of dishes that we just won’t eat, or can’t get ingredients for if we wanted to. Give me a good meatloaf or stew any day of the week.

And homemade bread. Yum. (Newest favorite recipe here.)

Comment by Earthbound Spirit

November 14, 2008 @ 9:22 pm

Except for being a vegetarian, I’m with you Jess. I’m a vegetarian who feeds me & mine from Pick N Save, not Whole Paycheck… And the vegetarian thing is a personal choice. I just wish I still had time to make bread - I have the best sandwich bun recipe…

Comment by Danise

November 16, 2008 @ 6:44 pm

Cooking healthy and eating ethically is such a struggle for us as well because of economic conditions. I used to buy the free-range chicken eggs but can’t afford to anymore. And the organic fruits and veggies at Smith’s are not only expensive, but of poor quality. I can’t make a trip to Santa Fe for Whole Foods groceries, nor can afford them. So I do the best I can.

And really….what is even the point with tofurkey?!!

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