General Assembly: GA Presentations: Presenter views and opinions do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the UUA.

Ethical Eating: What are Unitarian Universalist Congregations Doing?

General Assembly 2009 Event 4032

Sponsored by the Commission on Social Witness. Presenters: Rev. John Millspaugh, co-minister, Winchester Unitarian Society, Winchester, MA, and Chair of the Ethical Eating: Food and Environmental Justice Core Team; Rev. LoraKim Joyner, co-minister, Unitarian Universalist (UU) Fellowship of Gainesville, FL; Rev. Robert Murphy, minister, UU Fellowship of Falmouth, MA; Vicki Talbert, Bradford Community UU Church, Kenosha, WI; Rev. Dr. Paul Johnson, Senior Minister, UU Congregation at Shelter Rock, NY and Member of the Commission on Social Witness.

Millspaugh began with an explanation that this workshop is part of a new Association-wide effort to explore the hidden ways our food choices impact our communities and our world. Our new Congregational Study/Action issue, “Ethical Eating: Food and Environmental Justice,” said Millspaugh, is personal in nature and global in reach. Since our religion is not based on a creed, we Unitarian Universalists will choose to define terms like “ethical eating” in different ways. The objective of the Study/Action issue is not to propose a dietary code for all, but to encourage us all to make our own food choices that would fit our individual ethical and spiritual values. The study guide and other resources can be downloaded for free.

Joyner put a human face to the issue. Prior to her current co-ministry, she was co-minister of the Unitarian Universalist (UU) Community of El Paso, TX, and, before that, spent five years in Guatemala. She is currently fostering two seventeen-year-old young men from Honduras who are undocumented workers. Their plight has opened her eyes to the suffering of migrant workers who have no legal rights and who work for very low wages with no benefits. There are 1.5 million farm workers, three-quarters of whom are undocumented. Church members from her congregation joined her efforts to help friends of her foster children, most of whom work in the blueberry and watermelon fields. They would sometimes spend a day picking blueberries and watermelons with them, bringing along international phone cards so that these farm workers would be able to call home.

Murphy’s church, the UU Fellowship of Falmouth, has engaged in food projects for many years through working with food pantries in their neighborhood. Every year, in the fall, they hold a “Rachel Carson Harvest Dinner” which celebrates “organic gardens, earth-friendly landscaping and local agriculture” as a fund-raising project to support these food pantries. The key to success, said Murphy, is celebration. “You are what you celebrate,” he added. He also noted that when publicity of these sorts of events appears in the Food section instead of the Religion of the local newspapers, it tends to draw more attention. This year, for the first time, the congregation celebrated “World Ocean Day” to raise awareness of the environmental impact from our over-consumption on the fragile balance of lives in the oceans.

Talbert acts as the liaison from the Unitarian Universalist Ministry for Earth (UUMFE) to the Ethical Eating Task Force. She talked about how she brought the enthusiasm from last year’s General Assembly back to her congregation, after the delegates voted for this Study/Action issue. The congregation of about 125 members already had an active Social Action Council (SAC) that had been working on issues such as hunger, food pantries, a community garden, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), Green Sanctuary, environmental justice, human rights, and sending solar ovens to refugees in Darfur. The SAC includes smaller groups, each committed to choosing one issue to act upon. She led a Sunday service to start off, and held a letter-writing campaign after the service for members to write letters to their representatives urging them to pass legislation relating to social justice issues. The congregation has held many events surrounding the subject of ethical eating – free trade/fair trade, vegan/vegetarian fairs, micro-loan programs, cooking classes for sustainability, and planting a grove to produce food for the hungry.

Johnson explained the process of choosing a study/action issue from the vantage point of the Commission on Social Witness. This study/action issue was adopted a year ago, by delegates to the Fort Lauderdale General Assembly, and was one of five on the ballot. Soon after, a core team was assembled. That team drafted the study guide which is available on the denomination’s Social Justice website. The deadline for congregational feedback on this issue was March 1 of this year. The core team will meet to consider the input received. A list of deadlines for various steps in this process is available at the Social Justice website. The final proposed Statement of Conscience is for debate by delegates to the 2011 General Assembly in Charlotte, NC.

Following the presentation, participants lined up to ask questions or to share resources and stories from their own congregations. Millspaugh added that the core team intends to add congregational feedback to the study guide by publishing an addendum. One person asked about copyright issues, when congregations show videos like “King Corn,” and others suggested in the study guide. The team assured participants that royalties have been paid, and permission to use those materials has been obtained.

Reported by KokHeong McNaughton; edited by Bill Lewis.