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Q&A with John Gibb Millspaugh

John Gibb Millspaugh serves as Chair of the Unitarian Universalist Association's (UUA's) Ethical Eating: Food and Environmental Justice Core Team. Here he talks about tuna casserole and pesticides, factory farms and jello, and the easy steps anyone can take to make their diets healthier for themselves and the planet.

Were you an ethical eater prior to taking on this task? How did you come to it (reading, friends, farm experience, etc)?
I was raised in the Midwest, and spent a fair amount of time on my grandfather’s farm in Iowa. But as factory farms crept in and I saw their impact on the environment, animals, and the lives of my neighbors, it made me take my food choices seriously. I realized every food purchase subsidizes a certain type of future. I began to pay more attention to what I was voting for. As I’ve discovered how my food choices relate to climate change and racial and economic justice, not only have my horizons expanded, so have my dinner options. The more I discover about ethical eating, the more I realize I have to learn...and to eat.

What did dinner used to look like, and what does it look like now?
Growing up Methodist, my staples were macaroni beef sauté, creamed chicken breasts, and tuna casserole—dinner almost always involving a hot dish of some type, and dessert on good days of chocolate cake, on bad days, of Jello™ with little wrinkly things quivering inside. Now on our family table we have things like burritos, stir fries, pasta dishes, curries, soups, and when we’re feeling indulgent, pizza and oven fries and chocolate cake. The recipes have changed some and my palate has expanded. Sometimes we cook from scratch using all fresh ingredients, sometimes we leave the crock pot simmering all day, and in busy times we’re not above popping a premade frozen meal in the microwave. And in case you’re wondering, I still like macaroni.

For someone who wants to begin eating ethically, what do you think are the easiest changes to make?
It’s very easy to make one or two small changes in your diet that you can instantly feel good about. You might switch to fair trade coffee, which makes a world of difference for small farmers and the environment. You might pick a certain type of produce to buy organic when it’s available, to help your own health, and the laborers who would have otherwise been exposed to massive doses of herbicides, fungicides, and pesticides. You might ask a vegetarian friend to give you their favorite easy recipe and use it to replace a tired recipe of your own, for the sake of animals and climate change. You might pick up a couple cans of food for your local food pantry every time you go shopping, and invite folks in your congregation to do the same. Any of these things would take five minutes of effort, and make a world of difference.

What do you think are the hardest changes to make?
If you decide you want to undertake a sweeping change in your diet—like always striving to eat low on the food chain, for all the reasons mentioned above—making such a big switch can feel overwhelming. The truth is, once you’ve established a new eating pattern, it’s usually as easy to maintain as your old pattern. You just spend more time in certain aisles of the grocery store, or shop a different place, or discover a new favorite restaurant, or order a different item from the menu at your current favorite place. But even though the diet you’re heading toward is just as easy as your diet now, the transition period is challenging because it takes a lot of new learning. The switch won’t necessarily cost you any more money, but it will cost a little time. A lot of people fail to do a lifetime of good because it would take them two months of effort.

What, in your opinion, is the food that is at its best when enjoyed ethically/locally—the proverbial homegrown tomato?
Speaking for myself, I think it’s wrong to conflate eating ethically with eating local. Eating local can still subsidize factory farms, pesticide-intensive crops, and exploitative labor practices. A homegrown organic tomato from a local greenhouse can use up more than twice the fossil fuels that would be burned by shipping a tomato from a distant area with warm weather, because of the energy inputs greenhouses require in colder climates. And if you look at U.S. Department of Transportation data you’ll see that driving an average car just three miles to and from a farmers’ market releases as much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as shipping 17 pounds of produce halfway around the world. In their book The Ethics of What We Eat: Why our Food Choices Matter, fifth-generation Missouri farmer Jim Mason and ethicist Peter Singer write that “...ethically, we should put ourselves in the position of all those affected by our actions, no matter where they live. If [local farmers] need extra income to send their children to good colleges, and farmers in developing nations need extra income to ... afford basic health care or a few years of elementary school for their children, better to support the farmers in developing countries.” Even, they show, when those impoverished farmers receive just two cents of every dollar you spent.

So what’s better than eating local?
I think a lot of things, like eating organic, or low on the food chain, but the point isn’t what I think, the point is that people take time to think for themselves. It’s about having these conversations in our congregations and learning from one another—which many congregations are already doing, with more congregations joining in all the time. The group at my own church kicks off next week, and I know I’ll learn a great deal. All of us together are much wiser than any one of us alone. The Congregational Study/Action Process is exciting because it brings all perspectives to the table.

If you could use one word to describe the satisfaction that comes with sourcing good, clean, sustainable foods, what would it be?

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Last updated on Wednesday, June 2, 2010.

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