Posted by: Philip Rushton | May 8, 2012

The Ethics of Eating

This weekend Tym helped me install a chicken coop in our backyard. For a long time, Julie has had a dream of being more connected to the food we eat. It started when we read Barbara Kingsolvers book Animal Vegetable Miracle, which documents her year of living off the land with her family. Her book is interspersed with interesting essays on the benefits of local eating.

For Christmas I bought Julie a book titled, The Backyard Homestead, which is full of creative ways to make a small city lot a place of sustainable production. It will be a while before we actually see this dream come to fruition. With the challenges of being new parents we will have to take baby steps (no pun intended) towards becoming urban farmers. Nevertheless we are wanting to move in that direction.

Brother David Andrews, former Executive Director of the National Catholic Rural Life Conference, writes these words: “Eating is a moral act. Our tables need to include those who’ve been excluded. Our talk needs to include our farmers, their families, the rural communities, our environment, our landscape, our countryside, religious and moral values. By our [food] choices we shape our world.”

I think Andrews makes an important point. The choices we make about what we eat have major impacts that often go undetected. For one thing, the globalization of the food industry has made it such that much of what we eat travels a long distance to our plate. The Center for Urban Education About Sustainable Agriculture (CUESA) estimates that the average American meal travels 1500 miles from farm to plate. This has a huge environmental impact. Stephen Hopp estimates that we are consuming an average of 400 gallons of oil per person for agriculture and food production. He continues by saying, “if every U.S. citizen ate just one meal a week (any meal) composed of locally and organically raised meats and produce, we would reduce our country’s oil consumption by over 1.1 million barrels of oil every week.” As Christians we are called to be good stewards of the land that has been entrusted to us. This conversation about stewardship ought to include the environmental impact of our consumption habits.

Along with these environmental impacts there are also economic and social issues that can easily go undetected. I recently came across some research suggesting that it is almost impossible to purchase chocolate that has been processed without any slave labor. Since we are disconnected from our food sources it is hard for us to know the issues that lie behind the production of food. Sometimes the cheap food we consume comes at a cost to someone down the line, whether it be underdeveloped countries, or local farmers who can’t compete with large corporations.

These thoughts are really a public confession on my part. I am only at the beginning of this journey of being a more responsible consumer. I am thankful that Julie has encouraged me to become more aware of the ethics of eating. Hopefully we can make some incremental changes to our consumption habits.

I came across a list of six practical ways we can improve our eating habits by Wendell Berry. These are taken from his essay “The Pleasure of Eating.”

He writes:

1. Participate in food production to the extent that you can. If you have a yard or even just a porch box, grow something to eat in it. You will be fully responsible for any food that you grow for yourself, and you will know all about it. You will appreciate it fully, having known it all its life.

2. Prepare your own food. This means reviving in your own mind and life the arts of kitchen and household.

3. Learn the origins of the food you buy, and buy the food that is produced closest to your home. The idea that every locality should be, as much as possible, the source of its own food makes several kinds of sense.

4. Whenever possible, deal directly with a local farmer or gardener. All the reasons listed for the previous suggestion apply here. In addition, by such dealing you eliminate the middlemen, transporters, processors, packagers, and advertisers who thrive at the expense of both producers and consumers.

5. Learn as much as you can of the economy and technology of industrial food production. What is added to the food that is not food, and what do you pay for those additions?

6. Learn what is involved in the best farming and gardening. Eat what is good to grow.

I’m thinking of putting on a church potluck this summer where we are challenged to prepare food that has been grown within a 100 mile radius. Any interest in the challenge?


  1. Sounds good. I could bring fruits and vegetables. Phil, you can bring the chicken – or are they just for the eggs?

  2. We just found out about the local Farmer’s Market near the fairgrounds. I think it’s on Wed and Sat, but not sure. They will have good veggie plant starters.

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