© Allysson McDonald 2010. All Rights Reserved.
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
April 11, 2010

Listen to Audio Selections from the Service (mp3)

Let me say first that I have no intention of telling you what to eat - or more importantly, what not to eat. I'm certainly no angel when it comes to eating the "right things", myself, so that would be hypocritical at least. But the topic of ethical eating is fascinating to me. What does it mean, I wonder? Does it mean following certain rules? Does it mean never eating certain things because we are told we shouldn't? Or does it mean you should "look before you bite"? I think it means making conscious decisions about what we want to eat.

People historically have had cultural and religious guidelines about what is okay to eat and what isn't. Most religions not only dictate certain general dietary restrictions, but sometimes tell you what not to eat on certain days or certain months. If you grew up Hindu, you may not eat meat, and you might fast on certain holy days. If you grew up Jewish, you might follow Kosher laws. If you grew up Muslim, you probably only eat Hallal meat, you don't eat pork, and you fast during Ramadan. If you grew up Catholic, you may have eaten fish, but not other meats on Fridays and you may have fasted from chocolate during Lent. If you grew up Orthodox Christian, those Lenten days of fish included Christmas Eve. One purpose of fasting is to remind people that there are others who go without on a regular basis, to make them more conscious. The fast as described in our responsive reading of Isaiah 58 reminded me of the requirement during Ramadan to not only restrict eating during daylight hours, but to give to charity.

My interest in food restrictions dates back to when I had a friend in college who tried to keep kosher - no cheese on his burgers and no milkshakes with them either, as well as no pork. When asked why, he said it was about having a frequent reminder that he was making God central in his life. Eating whatever he wanted, whatever looked good, would be easy. Keeping Kosher was a sign of his commitment - not because it was logical or necessary to eat this way, but because he could choose. He was eating "consciously".

I remember going to the store with my friend's girlfriend to buy food for lunches. We had to read the ingredient lists on everything! Bread, cookies, you name it - and yes, in those days, Oreo cookies were made with lard, as were many other products. I said to myself I was glad it was her, and not I, who had to deal with these dietary restrictions on a regular basis.

And then Graham, my future husband, came into my life! Graham doesn't eat any land animals or birds. When we met he ate fish, but not other kinds of seafood. And he didn't want any pork in the house. But I loved him! So I started reading those labels! I never became a vegetarian myself. Part of that was that I personally did not believe that we are what we eat in any kind of spiritual or psychological sense, which is what Graham's guide was teaching - you know, if you eat an animal, you will have animal qualities. But for Graham it was important to be conscious about what he ate, and I respected that.

While animals have instincts that instruct them in what to eat, we have a multitude of choices. It has been proposed that this is precisely why humans have such a big brain. If we abdicate that choice, are we regressing to a stage, where our values and ideals have no part in what we eat? In that sense, maybe we are what we eat?

I have always resisted the idea that what is right for someone in one context is right for everyone. Here's why: When I was young I studied and worked for the Inuit (Canada's Eskimo population). Now, in case you didn't know, there are no vegetables growing in the arctic. For a limited time in their short summer you can pick berries and lichens on the tundra, but otherwise all their nutrition comes from "harvested" animals. Depending on the seasons, they eat fish, caribou, birds, birds' eggs, seals and whales. They eat all the organs in an animal in order to get the most nutrition - something our culture finds appalling. And there were those (some aligned with Greenpeace, which started in Canada), who thought they should give up the seal hunt (even though the particular species they "harvested" were not endangered). I'm sorry, but I couldn't accept that these people should stop eating their traditional local diet and eat only expensive food flown in from the south - a diet high in sugar, fat, refined flour and preservatives. And since seals traditionally provided for much beyond food - materials for clothing and boats and more - it is ingrained in their culture. It just didn't make sense. What is ethical in that case?

But if you choose to be vegetarian, whether out of empathy with animals, for health reasons, or for religious reasons, you too are eating consciously. You don't eat everything - you take the choice seriously. In our culture we often eat without thinking about what we are eating, where it came from, how it was produced, or whose lives were affected by its production. Vegetarians may not be off the hook either. Who grew your soybeans, and under what conditions? But as long as we don't look, it won't hurt us, we hope. Maybe sometimes we need to look - sometimes we need to know.

As Unitarian Universalists, we affirm and promote justice, equity and compassion in human relations: One reason our food is so cheap is the labor that produces it. Our food is often produced by non-unionized plant workers - and sometimes even by prison labor. In watching the movie Fresh it became apparent to me, that the conditions and pay for processing chicken are so poor, at least at the large plant referred to in the movie, they have to rely on prisoners to do the work! Should I know the working conditions of the people who produce my food? Should it affect our choice of what to eat?

A UU World story several years ago told about migrant farm workers whose boots were eaten away by the chemicals in the soil where they pick potatoes. And they suffer from skin lesions and respiratory diseases - without proper health care: All for a cheaper potato for my table? Should this affect my choices?

Chemical fertilizers and pesticides, genetic engineering, mono-culture on a huge scale, raising single species of animals in isolation from their natural setting in cramped quarters - these all have huge impacts on the environment as well as our own health. Symbiotic relationships are ignored. Another story that impacted my decisions about what to eat was about genetically modified corn. It produces its own pesticides, which are blown by the wind onto adjacent plants including milkweed - and the monarch butterfly population is affected. All for cheaper corn syrup in our soft drinks? Should this affect my choice of what to eat?

Now we're advised that we ought to eat "local" in order to protect our environment from the effects of green house gases created by transporting foods across the world! We also know that the export of food from the developing world has contributed the poor conditions of farm labor in those countries, and sometimes even to famine conditions as monoculture and its dangers prevail. Should this affect my choice of what to eat?

What if I can't find an organic source of something local? It's so complicated, now we have to weigh out which is better, and I don't have enough knowledge to do that. Should I make an effort to investigate this?

Here's how my UU principles come into play. If I believe in the inherent worth and dignity of all people, how can I eat food that causes farm workers and their children to become ill? If I affirm the interdependent web of life, how can I eat food that causes environmental degradation? If I affirm the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all, should I eat food that is produced by people who have no rights?

Traditionally we've relied on our cultures and our religions to tell us what is "safe to eat". But our culture seems to have let us down. We have grown distant from the sources of our food and don't think about where it comes from. Is it time for religious organizations, like the UUA, to speak out about what we are eating? Holly Ito and Rev. Barbara Meyers and some others in our congregation have volunteered to form a new committee on denominational relations. If you are interested in whether our Association should speak out and make a statement of conscience about ethical eating, let them know. If you'd like input into what that statement might be, let them know!

And you can, of course make changes in your own food choices. For example, I've read that if every American replaced one meat-based meal with a vegetarian one, it would be the equivalent of taking more than five million cars off US roads! I'm not going to tell anyone to become a vegetarian! But we eat three times more meat per capita as we did when I was a child! Three times! I am, however, a firm believer in baby steps - change is hard! But making tweaks can energize us to do more. My pledge to eat more ethically will be to look for alternatives to the packaged foods I buy that come from far away.

Another thing we can do is to learn from and support each other - create our own culture. If you want to learn more or try to make changes, I encourage you to sign up for Michael Joss's Adult Education class on local foods.

And finally, we didn't get this way all on our own. The government has made some decisions over the years that have really biased the production of food towards agribusiness and monoculture. Do you think US antitrust laws should be vigorously enforced without bias? If you want to take political action you could urge the Department of Justice and U.S. Department of Agriculture to thoroughly examine the control of our food system and take immediate action to address unfair practices.

After all these years of living with a vegetarian, I've concluded that I am what I eat after all! What I eat is a reflection of my values and beliefs. I want to be more conscious of what I am eating, and of the effect it has on the world and the people who produce it. Who or what is at the table with you? What will your fast be?

Back to Top