The people I admire most are those who truly embody their values, and I strive to do the same. Some of my most basic and essential values stipulate the health and happiness of all humans and the natural treatment of animals and of Earth. Why then, have I been eating food that denies those very things? Well, I’ve decided to stop.
“Modern eating is all about forgetting,” Harvey Ussery, a modern homesteader, said. Perhaps more than forgetting, it’s about ignoring. It’s not necessarily our fault that most people don’t know anything about where food comes from or how to grow food, which they couldn’t help but know in times past.
But once we know even the first thing about food production, how can we, as healers who pray to maintain our health instead of investing in modern medicine to regain it, consume meat and vegetables that rely on antibiotics to make it to our lunch line? How can we eat fruit that has poisoned workers in the field with chemical fertilizers while we strive to bless all humankind?
The people who work on banana plantations in Latin America and West Africa are subjected to poisonous agrochemicals every day, and the banana by-products are so steeped in these chemicals that they can’t decompose. That is why I only eat Fair Trade bananas now. Unless organic or otherwise ensured, dairy products come from cows treated with artificial hormones that have been banned by several countries due to their negative effects on the cows and, in turn, the humans who eat those dairy products. That is why I only drink organic or local milk. Conventional chocolate, as we learned during this year’s Public Affairs Conference, is often made with cacao from plantations that utilize child labor. That is why I’ve decided to buy only Fair Trade chocolate. While I’ve successfully abstained from eating bananas and am getting better at resisting chocolate, I’m forced to eat conventional foods from the salad bar because there isn’t enough money on the meal plan to buy only the organic meals available on campus, and I wasn’t getting enough fruits and vegetables.
Yes, organic foods tend to cost more than conventional foods, and I don’t presume that everyone has the immediate means to expand their food budget. But do you know why organic food costs more to begin with and why low-income families are forced to choose junk food over vegetables? It has a lot to do with the fact that federal subsidies from 1995-2005 were .37 and 1.91 percent for fruits and veggies and nuts and legumes, respectively, while meat and dairy production made up for 73.8 percent of food subsidies, and grains accounted for 13.23 percent. Healthier, more natural food isn’t inherently more expensive. I find it useful to remember that, while corporate and processed foods are often lighter on our wallets in direct transactions at the supermarket, they carry much greater public health costs in the long run.
I should also mention that even the organic label compromises some of the ideals I’m talking about. While organic may mean that animals are living a more natural life and our food is healthier for the lack of chemical fertilizers, it says nothing about the treatment and livelihood of its workers. Furthermore, a lot of the organic foods one can buy are made by the same corporations that make all the foods I’m trying to avoid. For instance, Pepsi owns Naked Juice, Coca-Cola owns Odwalla, Dean owns Silk and Horizon, Kellogg owns Morningstar and Kashi, Kraft owns Back to Nature and Boca Foods, and so on. Organic Valley, on another hand, is a co-op, buying food from small farms around the country, but because of its high demand as a national supplier, it can only accept member farms that produce certain amount of food, and ends up putting smaller organic farms out of business.
While supporting the organic industry keeps harmful chemicals out of our water and bloodstreams, oftentimes, truer accountability is owed to local industries. But “local” is also a buzzword. What I mean by it is an accessible operation in which I know the food I’m eating is being grown in a healthy way for all of the plants, animals, and people involved. Many small farms, like Three Rivers Farm in Elsah, use all or mostly organic products and humane practices, but aren’t technically organic because of the ordeal it takes to get certified. Three Rivers values its relationship with community members who share the harvest, and its members can trust that it’s doing the right thing, whether or not the farm has a certified label.
So I’m on my way to sitting happy as a locavore, but here at school that’s a very tall order. Small colleges across the country offer alternative menus with local and organic foods because their students want healthier, more responsibly generated food. Here at Principia, we have a spiritual calling to free the captives of sorrow and sin, to love our neighbors as ourselves, and to uphold high moral standards. Why, then, are we still contributing to the industries that exploit and sicken human workers and animals alike? As an institution whose mission is to serve the cause of Christian Science, Principia has an opportunity to vote with our dollars and support just models of food production and, as Mary Baker Eddy charged The Christian Science Monitor, to injure no one but to bless everyone.
And now for the quintessential question: What can you do? If you’re on campus, you can let representatives in Principia’s Dining Services and administration know how you feel; Dining Services is keen to go green (did you know they can compost everything from tea bags to to-go containers now?), and once they see student support for something, they’ll do what they can to make it happen. No matter where you are, you can make informed choices about the food you buy and educate others about what’s behind the label. Do your best to buy from local companies and stay away from harmful ingredients (long chemical names are a good sign). If you can’t completely revamp your food budget, consider switching to organic with just a few of the things you use most often, like milk, potatoes, bananas, apples, peanut butter, and ketchup, for example. And a great first step is simply being more conscious of what you’re eating and choosing to apply your ideals to your diet.
The best part is that foods produced without harm to people, animals, and Earth are less harmful to those who eat them too, and they taste a lot yummier for it! One of my very favorite things is cooking up a meal with friends using ingredients that I can confidently vouch for, that put a smile on my face and warmth in my heart, because I know that I’m not compromising my ideals by eating them. Try it sometime – or better yet, every time!
Writer’s note: I can’t begin to touch on every side of these issues or make every good suggestion. Here are some resources for more information: I have read all or parts of Small Wonder and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver, The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan, Blessed Unrest by Paul Hawken, Deep Economy by Bill McKibben, as well as writings of Thich Nhat Hanh, Wendell Berry, Samuel Fromartz, Thomas Starrs, Mark Bitman, and Ed Hamer, and I recommend all of them. Most of the information for this column came from excerpts in a discussion course reader called Menu for the Future, published by the Northwest Earth Institute. I’m happy to lend you that or other readers, or you can visit nwei.org for more information. Stats came from sustainabletable.org, the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy’s 2006 report, cornucopia.org, nytimes.com, organicandnaturalexperience.com, foodnews.org, sierraclub.org, and farm.ewg.org.