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First Unitarian Universalist Church of Berks County

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Reading, PA 19602
610-372-0928

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UU Church of Berks County
The Ethics of Food
Rev. Sandra Fees
April 29, 2012

Where do we shop for food – the farmer’s market, a supermarket, a superstore? Which products do we purchase – local, vegetarian, organic? And why? Do we use fresh produce, pre-packaged, frozen, canned? When we eat out, where do we go? What can we afford? Often when we think about ethical eating, we think about our personal relationship to food. We consider the food choices we make or don’t make.

I like to participate in what is known as a CSA – community sustainable agriculture. This summer, I have a half-share and will receive six to eight items a week from June to November.  The idea is to create a connection with a local farmer. It’s not unlike shopping at the farmer’s market, only I know that I am placing my support with one farmer for an entire harvest season, and I like that.

While I feel good about this choice, I also recognize that many individuals and families aren’t going to be able to participate. It’s beyond their economic reach. They aren’t likely to be able to pay for a share up front much less purchase a lot of fresh items at the market or store. For me, participating in the CSA also means I’m buying less at Giant, where a portion of my purchase benefits the church, so that’s a trade-off.

I’m a pesce-vegetarian, eating fish occasionally. I buy lots of produce and lots of organic soy. Lest you think I’m a food saint, I have a weakness for Reese’s peanut butter cups and potato chips. I also routinely and admittedly purchase items that aren’t considered local or low-impact environmentally. I’m sure some of the fish I eat is farmed. I also eat lots of bananas. You may wonder what’s wrong with bananas. They aren’t coming from anywhere nearby.

The food we eat in America requires about 400 gallons of oil a year per person. Author and scientist Steven L. Hopp, using a bit of sarcasm, says "a quick way to improve food related fuel economy would be to buy a quart of motor oil and drink it." According to Hopp, if each family were to eat one weekly meal of local, organic foods, "we would reduce our country's oil consumption by over 1.1 million barrels every week… " (Barbara Kingsolver, et al., Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, from Rev. Peter Friedrichs sermon on ethical eating) No matter what choices we make about what we eat, we are going to inevitably confront some conflicts in priorities. There’s a lot of material out there in general to help us weigh and deal with the options. There’s Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, among others.

To complicate matters, the Economist magazine argues that food shopping as the new politics is seductive. Clever shopping, they say, merely makes us feel we are making a big difference. The Economist suggests we need instead to do:

Things that are less fun than shopping…. Real change will require action by governments, in the form of a global carbon tax; reform of the world trade system; and the abolition of agricultural tariffs and subsidies, notably Europe's monstrous common agricultural policy, which coddles rich farmers and prices those in the poor world out of the European market. Proper free trade would be by far the best way to help poor farmers. Taxing carbon would price the cost of emissions into the price of goods, and retailers would then have an incentive to source locally if it saved energy. But these changes will come about only through difficult, international, political deals that the world's governments have so far failed to do. (“If you think you can make the planet better by clever shopping, think again. You might make it worse.” Dec. 2006, www.economist.com/node/8381375)

So what’s the food ethically minded person to do? There is a real need to change individual behavior. I think there’s enough evidence to indicate it makes a difference. It can improve a person’s health, raise awareness of other related issues, and benefit the planet, even if only in small way. Just consider how the growing demand for organic food has dramatically increased availability.

The systems that are creating food injustice also need some pretty radical reform. A quick look at the ethical issues related to food gives us some idea of the scope of the concerns and why individual behavior alone is not likely to accomplish that. Topping the list are: additives, advertising, air freight, animal welfare, antibiotics, biodiversity, biofuel, children, climate change, fair trade, food miles, food poverty, food security, genetically modified food, overfishing, obesity, packaging, waste water, in vitro meat, hunger, water scarcity, and healthy eating. (www.foodethicscouncil.org/theissues)

The significance of these issues to Unitarian Universalists can hardly be overstated. The significance pertains to our “vision of environmental justice. One of our principles acknowledges ‘the interdependent web.’” As John Robbins said in Diet for a New America, “Humans are part of the web of life. What we do to the planet, what we do to other species, and what we do to other people, we end up doing to ourselves.”

“Our UU principles also affirm the importance of human rights.” (from Congregational Study/Action Issue 2008-2012 Resource Guide) Our principles call for recognition and respect for the other – for the environment, consumers, farmers, and others involved in food production and distribution. It includes the “equitable distribution of both environmental burdens and benefits for populations of residents and workers.” (from the Statement of Conscience). Our commitment to anti-oppression work and economic justice are closely tied to the commitment to ethical eating. Economic justice is “a prime determinant of access to food.”

Recognizing the enormity of the issue and its importance to our liberal faith, we adopted ethical eating as a four-year study/action issue in 2008. Delegates at the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly in Charlotte, NC, approved Ethical Eating: Food and Environmental Justice as a 2011 Statement of Conscience. A resource guide was produced, and it suggests three areas of possible congregational focus. I want to share these with you. They are:

  1. Support sustainable agriculture and farmers’ markets, and encourage organic community gardening.
  2. Volunteer in support of community food pantries, Meal on Wheels programs, and similar projects that address the problem of hunger.
  3. Become an advocate for social and economic justice. 

So if we were to do a report card on our congregation, how would we fare? We offer fair trade coffee on Sunday mornings. We limit our congregational use of disposable paper products and limit water consumption with our efficient dish washer. We recycle. That’s all well and good, but we do more that has a larger impact.

We also address the problem of hunger. Hunger tops the United Nations list of eight millennium goals. They describe hunger as one of the greatest scandals on the planet. There are nearly 1 billion people who go to bed hungry each night. That’s one in seven people. This, despite the fact that there’s enough food in production to feed everyone. The core problem is not a food shortage. It is related to poverty and lack of access to food by those most in need. (www.un.org/en/globalissues/briefingpapers/food/ whatcanbedone.shtml)

The Executive Director of the UN’s World Food Program described her own personal awakening on this issue. She was speaking to the International Press Club in Washington, DC, in 2010 about the progress toward the UN’s goals. She said:

My personal awakening of the devastating power of hunger happened in 1986. I just had my first child and I was feeding her and watching television. I saw an Ethiopian mother with a child the same age as my baby who was crying very weakly for food. And the mother had no milk in her breasts to feed the baby and she had no food for herself. And I thought there can’t be anything more painful than not being able to answer your child’s call for food. What struck me at the time, and remains with me now, is that there was enough food in the world for everyone to eat. During the food crisis in 2008 there was enough food for everyone in the world to have 2,700 kilocalories. Yet a silent tsunami threw more than 115 million into abject hunger. (United Nations Website)

We strive to improve access to food and lessen hunger in our local community through our monthly food pantry. In our work with Family Promise, we offer not only a place to sleep but also nutritious meals for families as they move out of homelessness.

The ongoing economic slump led me to make a change in the way I use the minister’s discretionary fund. This fund is used primarily to help individuals with one-time financial needs, such as paying a utility bill or rent. In the past few years, I’ve also used the fund to purchase grocery cards. When I provide assistance, I typically also provide a grocery gift card.

In terms of our report card, there is also the statewide economic justice work I am doing with the Unitarian Universalist Pennsylvania Legislative Advocacy Network - UUPLAN, as it is called. It led me to spearhead our recent letter-writing effort to save general assistance. Several of you helped gather the signatures. Our congregation alone sent nearly 80 letters to our legislators, letting them know that we want to save general assistance from budget cuts. General assistance provides on average only $205 per month to those who have no other income source. The issues they face relate to abuse, addiction, and disability. There’s also a proposed cut to food stamps in the budget, which UUPLAN, is opposing.

These proposed cuts in the state budget will have a disproportionately negative impact on Pennsylvania’s most vulnerable citizens. These are the people who are already struggling to put food on the table and get adequate health care. On the surface, saving general assistance may not seem related to food justice. But remember, as I mentioned earlier, economic justice and environmental justice, especially hunger, are closely tied.

So together we are doing some things well, and we continue to seek new and related areas of involvement. Is there more we can do? Yes, of course. I want us to do as much as we reasonably can. When I think about what else we might do, if anything, I ask myself what strengths we already have as a congregation. What do we already know how to do and what do we need to know more about? What are we already doing that we can build on?

I encourage each of you to consider your relationship to food and your congregational commitment to working to alleviate poverty and hunger. Take some time to re-examine your commitments to compassion, equity, and justice for all. Consider volunteering for the food pantry, if you don’t already, or making a financial contribution. Help with Family Promise, if you don’t already. Join UUPLAN and become involved with other UUs across the state.

Albert Schweitzer, ever a source of wisdom, said: “A person is ethical only when life, as such, is sacred, that of plants and animals as that of other men and women, and when one devotes oneself helpfully to all life that is in need of help.” Let us devote ourselves helpfully to all life that is in need of help. Let us pledge ourselves to share more fairly the earth’s bounty. Let us strive for a more equitable distribution so that more people can be nourished in body and spirit.