Sometimes I feel like a paradox, especially when it comes to food. On one hand I’ve grown to love fresh exotic food like sushi. On the other hand, I find a certain joy in licking the orange powder from my fingers after a bag of Cheetos. I deeply question the use of pesticides and genetic modification in our food production system, yet as my watermelon vines were eaten alive by bugs, the thought of chemical warfare crossed my mind. For that matter, I’m fully aware of the issues of energy inefficiency and mistreatment of animals in meat production in our country, yet I’m also a Certified BBQ Judge.
I’ve become more aware of the opposing tensions that exist in our food system between ecology and economic justice. Over the last year I’ve made a number of lifestyle changes, one of which is a significant change in my diet. As I have become more intentional about the kinds of things that go into my body, I’ve become especially aware that good nutrition is directly related to income and educational levels.
Author Michael Pollan notes that the things our grandparents would have recognized as food are all around the outside of a grocery store. All of the stuff in the middle is just pretending to be food. These two areas of the grocery store also carry a cost difference. All of the things in a grocery store that are the healthiest are far and away more expensive than the pre-packaged, shelf-stable food in the middle. On top of the cost, the knowledge of what to do with a raw beef roast or green peppers and onions is something that has gradually become exclusive to the middle and upper classes.
Case in point, our local food bank gives away boxes of food during the holidays. A couple of years ago they stopped giving away whole turkeys in their food boxes because too few people had ovens. Even fewer knew how to cook the turkeys, so they were all winding up in the trash.
The moral ambiguity of food was really pointed out to me when I had a conversation with my wife about relatives who are trying a “100-mile diet.” This means they are only eating food grown within 100 miles of where they live. My wife pointed out, however, that this works fine when you live in Kansas. It doesn’t work so well for those in most major cities, especially the most economically depressed parts of most cities. She then told me about a summer spent in Washington, D.C., and how a neighborhood of 20,000 to 30,000 people had no grocery stores. Finding any food at all, let alone healthy food, meant very long trips across town. Suddenly, in comparison to this situation, voluntarily choosing to be a locavore seems like an embarrassing luxury of the super wealthy.
When it comes to the ethics of food, I find myself being pulled in a number of different directions. Perhaps I occupy a middle ground that others resonate with as well. The trick with occupying this middle ground is to not become mired in the ambiguity but rather work to change the things that we can and should. In the end, it seems as though the tag line from my favorite BBQ show sums up my feelings: Buy local, think global, stay sustainable and for goodness sake, always hug your momma.
This also appears on the Mennonite Weekly Review Website.