Sunday, March 11, 2012

Thoughts about ethical eating from an imperfect seeker

For the past several years when asked what topic we would like to hear a sermon on at my church, I've expressed an interest in a service on ethical eating. After last year's survey someone on our worship committee said to me - "Great idea!  How would you like to lead it?"  Well, that was not exactly the outcome that I had expected or intended.  Nonetheless, I figured that this would offer me a good opportunity to really focus on the issue of ethical eating and what exactly it means to me.  Throughout this process I've read some very thought provoking books and articles by published authors and bloggers alike.  In fact, several of them articulated so clearly what I believe that I shared some of their words to help express what was in my heart and on my mind.  I so appreciated the support that I received from my congregation and the conversations that I was engaged in after the service over a potluck lunch, that I decided to share what I discussed here.

I opened by sharing these words from Michael Pollan in his book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”:

“Much of our food system depends on our not knowing much about it, beyond the price disclosed by the checkout scanner; cheapness and ignorance are mutually reinforcing. And it's a short way from not knowing who's at the other end of your food chain to not caring–to the carelessness of both producers and consumers that characterizes our economy today. Of course, the global economy couldn't very well function without this wall of ignorance and the indifference it breeds. This is why the American food industry and its international counterparts fight to keep their products from telling even the simplest stories–"dolphin safe," "humanely slaughtered," etc.–about how they were produced. The more knowledge people have about the way their food is produced, the more likely it is that their values–and not just "value"–will inform their purchasing decisions.”
This is where my exploration of this topic led me for the service:

I was excited when the UUA’s General Assembly selected “Ethical Eating: Food and Environmental Justice” as our Congregational Study and Action Issue for 2008-2012, because it is an issue in which I have a lot of interest, unfocused though it may be.  As Unitarian 
Universalists, we are committed to living in ways that respect that inherent worth and dignity of all people as well as the interdependent web of life of which we are a part.

When I was asked to lead this service, I agreed to do so with a fair amount of trepidation that has only increased as today has drawn nearer.  Part of my trepidation stemmed from questioning what element of this very broad topic I should explore.  Should I talk about industrial farming techniques and resulting environmental degradation?  Should I talk about the conditions of animals born into the factory farming system?  Should I talk about the treatment of meat packing workers and the impact on illegal workers?

The other source of my trepidation is that, while I have a lot of passion for this topic, I am very much a seeker on this journey and I knew that I would be preaching to the figurative – or in the case of some of you, literal – choir on this topic.  There are many members of this community who are much better informed on any number of issues related to ethical eating and whose actions better reflect their values when compared to my own.  I worried that I wasn’t qualified to speak to you all about this.  After all, in my family when I say that it is almost dinnertime, it isn’t unusual for one of my children to ask not “what’s for dinner?” but “where are we going out to eat?”  I felt hypocritical talking about eating ethically when I have so much more growing to do personally.  The issue of our food choices impacts many environmental, health, economic, and social justice issues facing our world today. I am so often overwhelmed by what seems like issues that are too big for me to either fully grasp or to influence.  But then I took a deep breath and reminded myself that part of our covenant as UU’s is the acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth and the free and responsible search for truth and meaning.  And, with help from some of you in this room, I remembered that we belong to each other, and I that I do have something of value to share – my story, my journey.

I feel called to eat more ethically – to grow my own food, to avoid processed food-like products, to buy food grown locally, to eat organic, and to put more money into the pockets of farmers instead of agribusiness…just to name a few.   After several decades of considering it on and off, I became a vegetarian almost 3 ½ years ago because I object to the treatment of animals in the factory farming system. I must confess that over the course of the past month I have dabbled in meat eating, though I’m not, for now, prepared to make it a regular part of my diet again.  I do regularly cook meat for the rest of my family who falls squarely in the omnivore camp, though I do try to purchase meats from animals that have been raised humanely and given their natural food source (such as grass fed beef).  I have great aspirations to provide healthy, fresh foods for my family, but my lack of meal planning too often results in wasted produce.  I have a vegetable garden in my back yard, but my annual yield varies greatly depending upon the time and energy I put into regular care of what has been planted.  I am a staunch supporter of buying food that has been locally produced at farmers’ markets, but I don’t visit any of the excellent markets in the area very often.  I think that I do a good job of buying natural – and when possible – organic foods that are in season and, if not grown locally, at least produced domestically.  I am imperfect on my journey to eat ethically.  I am human.

So, what exactly is ethical eating?  I’ve been talking about it in theory, but I haven’t yet shared with you what ethical eating means to me.  As I prepared for today’s service I looked for definitions to encompass this very broad concept.  From we get this definition.  “Ethical eating, like ethical living, is not about absolutes.  It’s about doing the best you’re willing and able to do – and nurturing a will to do better.”  I also discovered a great post from Caitlin Boyle on her blog Healthy Tipping Point.  It is certainly too long to be classified as a definition, but when I read it, it felt like Truth (with a capital T) to me, so I wanted to share it with you.  To provide some background and context, Caitlin also gave up eating meat about three years ago because of her concerns about the treatment of factory-farmed animals.  Here is what she has to say on the topic of ethical eating.

“Can you be an “ethical eater” and eat meat?  Of course.  Why?  Because I don’t believe you have to be a “perfect” eater to be an “ethical eater.”  I believe that being an ethical eater doesn’t mean you don’t eat meat or don’t eat dairy or only eat local or only eat organic. I believe that “ethical eating” means you strive to make educated decisions about your food choices and the impact such choices have on our community, animals, and our environment, and then you strive to reach the best conclusion for YOU.  Sometimes, you might learn a bunch of information and decide you can take some, leave some.  For example, I can go without cow’s milk, but I personally don’t want to give up yogurt.  Does that make me “unethical?”  In my eyes, no.  Because I believe that every positive effort you make is important and worthwhile.

When I say that I am an “ethical eater,” I mean that I strive to understand WHERE my food comes from and the IMPACT that my choices have.  That does NOT mean that I am perfect.  I find it very worrisome when people say that I am a “hypocrite” for eating gelatin or yogurt.  …  I do not believe we should throw around the word “hypocrite,” especially when it comes to food choices.  Food is very personal, and all I can hope to do is educate people about why I do the things I do.   When people come down on me harshly for my choices and decisions, it makes me feel very judged.  It also makes me want to shy away from learning more.   Mama Pea said it best when she said, “I think being militant about any lifestyle choice is one of the biggest deterrents to invoking change in others.”

When it comes to being an “ethical eater,” there is no black and white.  There are a lot of gray areas, and these gray areas are dependent on each individual person.

I get a lot of e-mails from people who say, “I want to be a vegetarian, but I seriously don’t think I can skip turkey on Thanksgiving / give up marshmallows / never eat French onion soup again.”  And I always respond, “WHY does it have to be black and white?”  Make your own decisions work for YOU.  …as long as you’re educating yourself and making your decisions based on that information, I believe you’re an ethical eater.”

What really resonated with me about Caitlin’s perspective is her belief that there is no one right way to eat ethically – that it can and will look different for everyone.  There is no perfect solution for any one person let alone for all of us, nor are we, ourselves, perfect and that is okay.

On my path to learn more about ethical eating, I also came across this quote from Michael Pollan in “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.”

“Imagine if we had a food system that actually produced wholesome food. Imagine if it produced that food in a way that restored the land. Imagine if we could eat every meal knowing these few simple things: What it is we’re eating. Where it came from. How it found its way to our table. And what it really cost. If that was the reality, then every meal would have the potential to be a perfect meal. We would not need to go hunting for our connection to our food and the web of life that produces it. We would no longer need any reminding that we eat by the grace of nature, not industry, and that what we’re eating is never anything more or less than the body of the world. I don’t want to have to forage every meal. Most people don’t want to learn to garden or hunt. But we can change the way we make and get our food so that it becomes food again—something that feeds our bodies and our souls. Imagine it: Every meal would connect us to the joy of living and the wonder of nature. Every meal would be like saying grace.”

My friends, if we can imagine it, we can do it.  I leave you today with a two-part call to action. First, educate yourself about the issues surrounding our food, what is in it, how it is produced, and what we are supporting with each and every food choice that we make.  You can do this on your own or you can do this in community here.  Read – or re-read – Michael Pollan’sThe Omnivore’s Dilemma” as part of our multi-generational Read to Feed program.  Sign up for the Hungry for Change adult faith development offering that will begin meeting next month.  Come share a meal with other friends and members of the congregation and then watch a family friendly film about ethical eating at an upcoming evening potluck.  Or explore these issues on your own by reading one of the many excellent books - or watching a documentary or film - about our food supply.

The second part of my call to action is to take the information that you’ve learned and do something with it. Maybe for you this means venturing out to a local farmer’s market.  Maybe it means planting a garden this spring.  Perhaps it means eating less processed food.  Or maybe it means reaching out to our elected officials to advocate for different policies related to our food.  For me, where I am on my imperfect journey, I think it means trying to cook more meals from healthy, whole foods for my family.  As Michael Pollan says in his book “Food Rules” – “…we all feel pressed for time nowadays, but consider that, in the last few years, we’ve somehow found several hours in the day to be on-line at home.  We will always make time for the things that matter.  Cooking matters.”  Whatever taking action means to you, we can all become more ethical eaters and treat our world – and our imperfect selves – more gently.

I closed with these words from Barbara Kingsolver in her book “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle”:

“Our culture is not unacquainted with the idea of food as a spiritually loaded commodity. We're just particular about which spiritual arguments we'll accept as valid for declining certain foods. Generally unacceptable reasons: environmental destruction, energy waste, the poisoning of workers. Acceptable: it's prohibited by a holy text. Set down a platter of country ham in front of a rabbi, an imam, and a Buddhist monk, and you may have just conjured three different visions of damnation. Guests with high blood pressure may add a fourth. Is it such a stretch, then, to make moral choices about food based on the global consequences of its production and transport?”

So, that's what I had to share today about ethical eating.  It isn't new or radical, but it did help me more intentionally examine where I stand on my personal path to eating more ethically and, if you stuck with me through this very long post, hopefully there were nuggets in here that spoke to you, too.  Happy Sunday, friends!

"Eating is an agricultural act."  ~Wendell Berry

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