Doing Food Justice

A meat eater comes up to a vegan: “Did you hear about the new study saying vegans are more likely to go blind? I guess it’s because you don’t get the proper nutrition.” The vegan replied, “Nah, it’s just from reading all of those tiny ingredient lists.”

Vegans (vegetarians who don’t consume any animal products, such as milk, cheese and eggs), aren’t the only ones watching carefully what they are consuming. The amount of choice before the modern omnivore is bewildering. We’re not like Koala bears who only eat eucalyptus leaves. Omnivores always have had to balance trying new foods and loving food with the potential that they could hurt you. These days with agribusiness, globalization, science and socioeconomic analysis, we know that the food we eat can hurt others.

Especially in the U.S. under the barrage of food fads and choices, our anxiety builds with every passing year. There are so many kinds of food we can buy: Bioregional food, Local Food, Seasonal Food, Slow Food, Green Food (Green Cuisine), Humane Food, Fair trade Food, Smithsonian Bird Friendly Food, Health Food, Sustainable food, Good Food, Organic Food, Macrobiotic Food, Non Genetically-modified Food, Raw Food.

How do we achieve the right diet that is just for all beings and the earth? It seems impossible, and it may be. For instance, let’s say you are vegetarian or vegan. Even though more fish are off the hook, you still aren’t. Soy comes from monoculture, a form of intense agribusiness that uses pesticides, reduces biodiversity, causes great pollution and moves people off land as agribusiness moves in. One billion folks are without adequate food because monocultures rob them of livelihood.

OK, let’s say you go organic. Organic farming is harder work than regular farming, is being done intensively like soy in some areas, and the people often earn nonliving wages.

So what’s a person to do? It is so difficult to eat justly that most of us, myself included, tend to give up, shut down, quit learning, refuse to talk to others about diet choices and won’t even come to a service of this kind. Giving up on learning and growing in compassion is a religious concern. It means we live in denial which disconnects us from the abundance of being in honest, open, caring and knowing relationship with the web of life. This leads to despair, unhappiness, depression, tension and fear. As a religious people, as Unitarian Universalists, what can we do? . . .We need an energizing sense of interconnection. To feel connected, we can think of all beings as guests at our table . . .

Ask the underpaid immigrants who worked in the fields or in the farms or slaughter houses how their lives are. Maybe you’d change your food choices, maybe not. But your life would be more whole knowing how your food got to your table.

Let’s mosey on to a more informal dining setting—perhaps a barn or picnic. Now imagine that the guest at your table is another species that helped bring you food. Ask how her life is. The cow’s answer mu is quite instructive. In Buddhism it means that we are living under incorrect assumptions by thinking our lives are separate from any being, human or non-. If you don’t understand animal-speak, research how that animal lived and died before parts of it came to be your dinner. Michael Pollan, in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, suggests that all slaughterhouses and factory farms be built with glass walls. Seeing clearly what goes on we’d all use a lot less animal products and treat animals more humanely while they lived.

I don’t object to death. I object to how these animals live. They suffer greatly. We save a little money per meal while the agribusinesses pocket millions.

Half of the dogs in the U.S. will receive a Christmas present. Pigs, as intelligent as dogs, as able to suffer as dogs, as socially complex as dogs, become Christmas hams. More to the point, during their lives, pigs are treated as unfeeling machines. (Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, p. 306) If you haven’t already, have a pig as a guest at your table. Maybe you’d make some changes. The important thing is to be in touch with the worth and dignity of every being.

Gratitude is so easy to forget. If we could just remember that we are part of the web of life and are therefore never alone, never without the earth’s abundance, then maybe we’d have more energy and joyfulness to face life’s difficulties.

This piece is excerpted from a sermon delivered at Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Gainesville, FL