I recently read a very popular blog post, Food Choices Are Not a Moral Issue, on one of my favorite blogs, Keeper of the Home by Mandi Ehman of Life Your Way (another blog I read and enjoy). Mandi writes a lot of great stuff and I usually like her posts, but in this case, I wholeheartedly disagree with her claim. You can read the post here.
Basically, Mandi bemoans the rigid judgmentalism of many “real-food advocates” toward those who make “inferior” food choices. She quotes another blogger: “A culture that elevates eating to some holistic act of ethical self-definition – localvore, low-carbon-impact food, fair trade, artisanal cheese – will find the casual carefree choices of the less-enlightened as an affront to their belief system. Leave it to Americans to invent a Puritan strain of Epicurianism.” The quote made me think of Chris, the health nut from Parks and Recreation: health and food have become his religion. He’s obsessive and is always pointing out how unhealthy other people’s choices are. It’s no way to live.
C.S. Lewis makes a similar criticism of modern culture in The Screwtape Letters when he describes the warped gluttony of the mother of “The Patient.” She is so particular about her food that she takes all the joy out of eating. Her nitpickiness ruins the meal for others. My favorite college professor who taught the book said, “You need to reevaluate your moral attitude toward food if you can’t enjoy a good chicken fried steak every once in a while!” I agree. So, sure, don’t stand outside of McDonald’s and glare at everyone who goes in. Don’t criticize the meals your friend makes for her family because you don’t think they’re as healthy as they should be.
But does that mean that food choices do not carry moral weight? NO. The choices we make about food can either nourish or harm our bodies and therefore have a moral dimension. But the bigger issue (that isn’t even touched on in Mandi’s post) is that our food choices influence much more than personal health. The choices we make about food affect the environment, God’s creatures, and most importantly, other human beings.
I agree that to be unkind to others based on their food choices shows a lack of compassion to those who may have different circumstances or understanding of food ethics. Not everyone is as aware of the massive problems with the food industry as you may be. There’s no need to be a jerk and sneer at other’s fast food or processed meals. There’s no need to refuse to eat what’s offered to you at someone else’s house because it’s not what you would serve (barring serious allergies, of course). There are rules of hospitality that require that we are gracious and thankful and never unkind in these situations. It doesn’t help anything to rudely judge other people’s eating habits and there are better ways to educate about food ethics. However, I passionately disagree with Mandi’s statement: “food choices are not a moral issue”!
When we buy food, we vote with our money for what is ethical or what is not ethical. When we support a horrible corporation like Monsanto, we are making a moral decision. When we buy food from a source whose practices we know and believe to be ethical, we are also making a moral decision.
There was a lot of talk in the comments about everyone having the “right to eat what they choose.” Nobody is arguing with that. But just because you have the right to do something, doesn’t mean it’s morally permissible. Let me give an illustration: smoking. Everyone has the right to smoke. I don’t go around telling every smoker I see to stop. Nor do I glare at them or mutter under my breath. But I think what they’re doing has moral implications. If you understand what smoking does to your body and yet choose to smoke regardless, you are knowingly causing harm to your body. Holy Scripture is very clear that intentionally causing harm to our bodies is wrong. Furthermore, smoking does not only affect the smoker. If someone is smoking around their kids, they are harming their children. And if you’re irresponsibly spending your money on cigarettes, you are supporting a corrupt system. We can have compassion for smokers and give them grace because their circumstances might be very different from our own, but we can’t pretend that their choice is a good one.
And sure, people have different situations. My husband is a long-distance runner. If he has a soda now and then it’s no big deal because he’s burning it off. But if someone has diabetes and yet decides they still want soda everyday, they are making a grave moral choice: to harm the body God has given them. If we give our kids candy for every meal and they develop diabetes, our choices have serious consequences of a moral nature: we caused our children harm.
But what really shocked me about the article is the view that our food choices only have to do with our personal health aspirations. This is not the case. They affect the livelihood of people all over the world and have a huge impact on the environment, the world God has given us to care for. On top of that, there are the many problems with the meat industry and the inhumane treatment of animals in CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations). Is the abuse of God’s creatures not a moral problem? Can we be aware of the mistreatment these animals suffer in feed lots and choose to support those companies anyway without acting immorally?
Even more importantly, consider the plight of migrant workers in our country. When you purchase produce you might be contributing to conditions in which migrant workers are abused, physically and sexually. If you don’t know about these issues, that’s one thing. If you are aware, you become complicit. Is it not a moral issue whether or not to support the abuse of others? Our choices have great consequences and carry moral weight. To say that food choices are not a moral issue is to say that our food choices don’t matter. And they do. If we are knowingly harming ourselves, God’s creatures, and God’s creation, can we really claim that our actions have nothing to do with morality?
So how do we respond? With compassion and love, understanding that these issues are complex, not everyone may have the same information we do, and that their circumstances might make good food choices difficult for their family. We can try our best to make the right choices and offer good information to our family and friends. We can treat others with respect and accept food at other people’s houses with gratefulness rather than judgment. But we can’t ignore the great influence of our actions under the guise of being “nice.” It’s certainly not “loving” to ignore the abuse of migrant workers, the disastrous effects on the environment, and the grotesque treatment of animals typical on giant farming operations.
I understand that the point of Mandi’s post was to combat the snobbery of some sort of food choice superiority: an unkind, unhelpful, and arrogant attitude towards others which should not be encouraged. But ignoring the moral implications of food cannot be the answer!
My family has a far from perfect record when it comes to food ethics. We try to grow a lot of our own produce and buy locally from farms we want to support. But sometimes we eat out or purchase products from questionable companies. We are not perfect. We are trying to be ethical and honor God’s creation and creatures and little by little we’re doing better. So let’s support, encourage, and inform each other. Let’s love God by caring for our bodies, farm workers, animals, and his earth. But let’s not pretend that our choices aren’t important. There’s too much at stake.
For some great information on food and farming ethics, I highly recommend Wendell Berry’s wonderful agrarian essays. Many of them are in the collections The Art of the Commonplace and Bringing it to the Table. A good introduction to food issues, and a fun read, is Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. Or you can watch Food, Inc. or some of the other documentaries that expose the massive problems in the food industry.
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