Food Choices ARE a Moral Issue

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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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Comments

  1. says

    Great post! I think you’re dead right-it IS a moral choice but it is NOT moral to make others feel bad about it.

    I only have one thought to add-every family is different when it comes to their ability to choose “better” food options. Some families simply cannot afford meat from humanely treated animals, local organic produce, etc. no matter how they try to stretch their budget. And some people might be completely overwhelmed with stress just from simple meal planning because of events in their life. So to add this element to their planning would be too much for them to handle. I think the bar is set at a different heights for each family. Not that it’s an excuse-but that you can only do so much and then you need to devote time to reading to your kids, doing the laundry, etc rather than researching food choices or driving across town to buy from a certain store.

    I know you didn’t touch on this, it’s just an issue I frequently think about when this kind of topic comes up.

    • Haley says

      Thanks, Kaitlin. You made so many great points in your comment. As you said, every family’s situation is different and we can only do what we can! And support each other and share with each other so we are all encouraged and empowered to make the choices we aspire to. I know I’ve learned so much about food just from being friends with you!

  2. says

    Excellent post, and I agree with Kaitlin – it’s not our job to judge others based on what a particular family can afford or has the time or talents to provide – HOWEVER – that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be workings towards the goals of making good quality food available to all families. It’s because it is not yet an attainable goal for many that we shouldn’t give up the “food fight” – families, mothers, fathers, high school grads, etc. need to have access to information about they corporations they support, the local options, basic gardening (even if it’s a pot of basil or a lone tomato plant!) and more than rudimentary “home ec” cooking classes.

    This is why I was thrilled when living in Cleveland to see that the local, year round farmers market took “EBT'(food stamps) – whether or not people chose the market over the grocery store, the state/city/community had achieved something great by providing the access to better food!

    As with any “choice” based issue – whether it’s food, education or family size or life it’s worth being educated on your own opinion, but should be tempered with humility.

    • Haley says

      Great contribution to this discussion, Molly. I love your point about working toward making it possible for more people to have the opportunity to choose food from good sources. Many farmers markets accept food stamps which is just so awesome!

  3. says

    My family sits where you do. We try to grow much of our own food and support local farmers who are our neighbors, but fall short many times. We’re organic dairy farmers. We’re not hippies or yuppies. If you came out to our farm, it would look like a traditional farm – not like a conventional farm, and you will probably never find a zen garden here, but traditional in the sense of Old MacDonald’s farm. My father-in-law (who owns the farm and is a 4th generation farmer) chose to go organic because it made sense for the farm. Most of the practices were things that my husband’s family has done all along because they believed that it was the right thing to do for the animals and the land, he only needed to make a few changes to become certified. We still can’t afford to have a totally organic lifestyle – we’re still just poor farmers, haha – but there are very few purchases or actions that we make that aren’t ethical considered.

  4. LMM says

    Ooooh this is timely. I just had a really awful, awkward argument with my sister after my husband (innocently, he thought) responded to an invitation to a cook-out by asking where the meat they were going to serve came from. Blergh. He thought: “I only eat meat from humane sources, which is very important to me, and this invitation came from family, and they know me and my philosophy well enough not to get offended.” She thought (and said): “you are a rude, arrogant [expletive].” I think they were both being rude, to be honest, but I get it – it’s a very difficult situation. I’m vegetarian for many of these same reasons, which is easier – people just “get” that I don’t eat meat, and they don’t take it personally that I don’t think their meat isn’t good enough for me or my children. (I do think that, but we are able to sidestep the conversation). When this topic comes up – which it does a lot, usually in more pleasant circumstances than the aforementioned cook out, I try to respond to questions in a gentle but effective way – I don’t describe the horrible conditions the animals are kept in, for example, but will say that once you learn the conditions they are kept in, you can’t unlearn it. That usually gets the message across. And I think that when people eat at our house they love the food we serve – seasonal produce just TASTES better, you know? Tomatoes are excellent ambassadors for themselves. : )

    • Haley says

      That is a hard situation, LMM! It’s so difficult to follow rules of hospitality as well as trying to make ethical choices. And being a vegetarian probably does make it less awkward. People love the food we serve, too, even though our meals are heavy on the veggies and light on the meat (probably due to the fact that Daniel is such an awesome chef). “Tomatoes are excellent ambassadors for themselves.” I love that!

      • LMM says

        Oh yes, I should have clarified that my husband makes all of the food that guests rave about. I do the dishes. Gotta love a man who can cook.

  5. says

    I really enjoyed this post, Haley, and I’m not sure we actually disagree.

    I was really careful to say this:

    “There are certainly moral issues around food – including the lack of food for many people around the world, living out our convictions through the food we buy and serve other people, sharing the things we know with other people in an informative, non-judgemental way, and so on.”

    And although I didn’t bring up any specifics, I agree that our own food choices do have moral implications.

    Perhaps I should have titled the post, “Other People’s Food Choices Are Not a Moral Issue,” because that was really the point of everything I wrote. And I still stand by that assertion!

    Thanks for adding your voice to the conversation!

    • Haley says

      Hi, Mandi. Thank you so much for taking the time to read this post and respond. I know you’re a busy gal because I follow Life Your Way which is always full of new content. (And the pics of your girls’ first day of school today gave me a cute attack. So sweet!)

      I think you’re right that we might agree more than we disagree. I am definitely on your side about the importance of not hurting others by being critical of their food choices. Yet, I think it becomes murky when we say that our own food choices have moral implications while the choices of others do not. How bout this: “Other People’s Food Choices Are Not Your Moral Issue” ? I can fully get behind that one. :)

      Thanks again for taking the time to read and comment. I really appreciate it.

  6. says

    Love this post! My husband and I are organic farmers (beef cattle, hogs, and chickens). We plant a garden and I can or freeze what I am able from it. Like Ashley – there is no Zen garden here. Just a normal “Old McDonald” style farm. I believe food choices are a moral issue, but like you said it is NOT moral to judge the choices of another.

    • Haley says

      That is so awesome, Cassidy! We are hoping to be able to start saving up to buy some land and have a small farm about 5 years in the future. I’m going to have to check out your blog!

  7. Kate says

    I have a question that is somewhat off topic but it connects to your statement that smoking is morally wrong – “Holy Scripture is very clear that intentionally causing harm to our bodies is wrong.” How do you feel about alcohol? I am Catholic and up until recently saw nothing wrong with drinking occasional and moderately. My husbands family is Baptist and are strictly against drinking. I was having trouble defending drinking and at one point just said ” well Jesus drank” but honestly I am not sure if I believe that drinking is morally right anymore. Your thoughts??

    • Haley says

      I really think it depends on the circumstance, Kate. I think that alcohol is a gift from God! Drinking in moderation is not harmful to our bodies and certain kinds of alcohol like red wine can be positive for our health. However, like any of God’s good gifts, alcohol can be misused. It might be morally wrong for someone who struggles with addiction to have a glass of wine, knowing that they might not be able to keep their consumption under control. And I think we need to be aware of the struggles of others around us. It might be wrong to drink in front of a friend struggling with alcoholism knowing that it is causing them distress and difficulty. We have family members who always abstain from alcohol and we do not drink in their presence out of respect for them.

  8. says

    Hi Haley!
    I found your through LMLD and then couldn’t stop snooping your blog. I love this post! Spot on! It irks me that many Christians refuse to even acknowledge that food choices COULD have moral implications, when I think they should be at the forefront of supporting a movement that aims to treat our bodies and Creation as God intended: with nourishing food, respectful animal husbandry etc. I wrote a similar post on my Theology of Food on my blog here: http://www.tibaultandtoad.com/index.php/article/a_theology_of_food

  9. says

    Ok, so LONG (is four years long? idk! to me it is!…I digress…) ago I made this connection in my heart and head and it has been slow to take root in my husband, but, praise God, it is! I am so convicted of this and have always been a little irked by all these Christian (including Catholic) mommas making all they crazy ways of affording to feed the family on so little. Granted we are on one average income with two eating kids, six hens, a dog, a cat and kittens to feed, with a car we are trying to pay off (but hoping to have that done in five months! woo hoo!). I get it when you look at the money left at the end of the month and say, well it’s not about how much “fun” and “gift” money we have…its about how to make the most of every dollar feed us all. But I really sense Christ affirming us in this pursuit of eating sustainably raised and fair-treated and local food, not to mention the fervor with which the farmers we meet encourage us! I really do LOVE this post!

  10. Leandra says

    This doesn’t have to do with food but is still related since you mentioned that it is wrong to harm our bodies. What about tattoos? Are those wrong too?

    • Haley says

      I think some might disagree with me, but I don’t think so. To me it seems similar to ear piercing. While smoking or alcohol abuse does permanent damage to your body, tattoos and pierced ears are choices that vary significantly among cultures and don’t do long-term damage (unless practiced unsafely without proper hygiene, of course!). Technically they do harm the skin, but not permanently. I’d be interested in hearing others weigh in on this one!

  11. says

    Thanks for this post, Haley! I’ve tried to move to a totally whole-foods diet “cold turkey” before and it was just too hard, so I ended up giving up. I agree that food is a moral issue, and for the past few weeks I’ve been taking baby steps toward making food choices that are better for society, the environment, our bodies, and our budget. It’s completely worth it, but it really does take a lot of effort! So I applaud your gentle, firm approach.

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