Ethical Eating at General Assembly

Sweet potatoes at a farmer's market.

In 2011, delegates to the General Assembly (GA) in Charlotte, NC, adopted the Statement of Conscience “Ethical Eating: Food and Environmental Justice”. The Statement is comprehensive, calling Unitarian Universalists to strive to choose foods that minimize harm and are protective of the environment, consumers, farmers, and all those involved in food production and distribution. These are new and challenging things to consider at events, especially when planners have little knowledge of caterer supply chains beyond ordering what may be listed on a generic menu. Where does our food at GA come from? How is it cultivated? Is farm labor able to work in a safe and healthy environment? Are livestock treated humanely? Do purveyors support local food systems?

GA planners use their influence to advance awareness and action on food issues. The Association’s influence is most felt in the exhibit hall and for a handful of catered functions where the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) contracts for food service. In contrast, the UUA cannot require compliance by on-site third-party retail concessions that provide the majority of food to GA participants.

Every year the onsite caterer and concessionaries are informed of the UUA’s Statement of Conscience and are provided a copy to read. Caterers are asked to be mindful of these issues and specifically prioritize use of local and regional purveyors who adopt sustainable approaches. The UUA asks for information about labor conditions, a request that is typically difficult for caterers to fulfill, although progress is being made. For example, in 2015 Portland, caterers were able to provide more information about the producers of convention food and representatives from these farms and companies were available onsite to share information about their products.

The UUA is challenged to significantly influence food sourcing for GA as the event does not have many contracted or catered functions. In addition, attendees have very sensitive price points for retail concessions that make up the bulk of food service. While the UUA can require that information about sourcing be shared post-event for exhibit hall food lines, concessionaires are not willing to provide detailed information on their supply chains, as it takes too much time and they are not required to under their agreements. The UUA will continue to ask and require disclosure, even if it is slow to come.

What You Can Do

Although it is difficult to ensure that particular sustainable food requirements be met, the food choices attendees make at GA can have a significant impact on the environment. Did you know that meat requires 11x more fossil fuel to process than fruits and vegetables? And it takes 96x more water to produce meat than wheat? We encourage attendees to be conscientious of their food choices while at GA. Together we can continue to make a difference to each city in which GA is held.