Thursday, May 31, 2012

my food conundrum

I have a lot on my mind right now, so please bear with me.

I have been thinking about my food choices for a while now, and the recent changes in my diet and what the implications of those choices are. I've written about my thoughts on food before and I hope you won't mind my rambling again as I continue, I hope, to grow in my own understanding.

I was raised an omnivore in a culture that approves of using probably every part of the animal - boiled, stewed, fried, skewered, roasted - you name it. We ate everything else too - poultry, seafood, vegetables and sea vegetables, tropical fruit.

Then I started my yoga practice maybe 10-ish years ago and slowly transitioned to a vegetarian diet (which for me means no animal flesh, but with minimal to moderate amounts of dairy and egg). For the longest time, animal flesh just did not appeal to me.

butter lettuce, grown in Ohio

When asked by others why I became vegetarian, I just keep it simple and say, "personal reasons". Which is why I also hesitate to write about why I became vegetarian on this blog, except for a few posts. I don't want to alienate or polarize people, especially at social gatherings, and especially those who mean a lot to me (and well, the handful of readers I have on my blog are family and friends). But when pressed further to explain my reasons, my reasons started out as health-based, which later became more environmental (e.g., negative impact of factory farming on the ecosystem - the documentary Food, Inc. is an interesting one to watch).

image source

I've had a friend, who is an omnivore, say that out of all her vegetarian friends, I'm the one she enjoys eating with the most because she doesn't feel judged by me. I was glad to hear that (thanks, CD). Eating is a social and pleasurable experience - it's "breaking bread together".  Sharing a meal is nurturing. And again, I don't want to alienate or polarize people; I value the friendships I have. My entire family is still omnivore, and I've always been okay with it. (Of course, my dad eating crispy fried pork belly while having blood pressure issues is another story. Sorry for spilling it here, dad.).

A few months ago, after about 6 or 7 years of not eating animal flesh, I ate fish.

image source

I thought that was just a one-time thing. Then on my birthday, I ate fish again.

dinner at Lolita

(Here is a good resource on fish species that are more sustainable choices depending on where you live.)

And here is an even greater shock, even to me: I ate chicken. From this restaurant (which prides itself on sourcing produce and animals locally and sustainably). I am saying these buzzwords "local" and "sustainable" for reasons I will save for later, not to sound holier-than-thou. Just putting that out there.

chicken at Greenhouse Tavern ~ image source

It was so.darn.good. And yes, during that moment, I enjoyed it. Unapologetically. I'm being honest here. Which came as a surprise to me, because I've always been surrounded by omnivores and shared meals with them - and I always felt happy eating my legumes and vegetables while they enjoyed their meat/seafood/poultry. And, more importantly, we always enjoyed each others' company regardless of individual food choices.

There has been a lot of debate on the ethics of eating a plant-based diet vs. meat. Just do a search on the New York Times - there was an essay contest on "why eating meat is ethical", and I would imagine, many, many, many commentaries and responses on blogs and websites from non-meat-eaters and meat-eaters alike. 
image source
And while I try to keep up with all of this controversy and debate, I have to admit I haven't followed it closely. But that's probably not a bad thing, because I also don't want to be swayed as I am developing my own sense of ethics.

I think, that when it comes to food (and any product we use as a consumer, for that matter), it's not so much a matter of ethical versus non-ethical. I think we live in a continuum of ethics in our consumption, and our decisions lie in different points of the continuum from day to day.

Now I understand that there is good and there is bad. Before I go any further I will say that I'm not an expert on ethics by any means. We did study philosophy and ethics by St. Thomas Aquinas and the other great thinkers in my undergraduate years, and this was one of the toughest, yet most interesting  classes I took (even compared to some classes I took in grad school!). I'm not sure if I can re-state what I learned enough to do justice to their philosophies. So I'm not trying to write an essay on ethics by any means; this is just my way of thinking through my own dilemmas in my head.

Anyway -- the continuum. I have a hard time thinking in absolutes. If I did think in absolutes, then maybe my husband and I won't even be able to work through our interfaith marriage. But we do, and I think we're doing quite well. Ok before I go on that tangent, I will go back to my original thoughts...

Continuum example #1:
What is "better" - to eat local wild-caught fish from our nearby Lake Erie, or a processed and packaged GMO-soy product trucked in from the West Coast? Sure, the fish died to become food. But the fishery was also able to sell their catch, pay their employees, who can then provide for their families. Does this justify eating ridiculous amounts of seafood a la Man vs. Food? (there aren't a lot of things I hate - that is a strong word - but I really, really, really dislike that show on so many levels). Perhaps not. But consumed in moderation? Perhaps so.

Sure, no animal may have been killed directly in the production of a processed "vegetarian" GMO-soy product, but there may have been animals killed indirectly when their habitat was turned into a soy plantation. But what does a highly-processed "vegetarian" food do to the body compared to fresh seafood?

In the end, which is more harmful?

Continuum example #2:
Who makes "better" choices - someone who eats fresh food including a moderate amount of meat, rides his/her bike to work, and donates his/her time to charitable causes, or someone who eats a microwaved, packaged "vegan" meal and picks fights all day? (These are fictional characters for the sake of comparison only!)

I think the reason there is such a heated debate around food is that food is a choice we make everyday, 3 times a day (ok, in my case, 5-6 times, not including the meals I dream about). And I can make an impact through my choices 3x 6x a day 24/7.

We make food choices so frequently. And unless we run our own farm, raise our own animals in a healthy environment, grow our own plants as food, and source 100% of our food this way, our food choices can't be perfect all the time. I think, that unless we have full control over where our food or any product we use or consume comes from, the reality is that we inflict some degree of harm in any decision we make.

The banana I put in  my smoothie everyday.
This cheap T-shirt I'm wearing.
The laptop I am typing on to write this post.
Heck, even my so-called PVC-free yoga mat "made from natural materials".

I do not know the whole truth of how all of these are grown, harvested, produced, or manufactured. The truth is, we use the energy of something else - or someone else - in varying degrees in order to live. Whether that is the energy of an animal, or a person growing/harvesting our food or manufacturing the products we use every single day. I don't know if a migrant laborer suffered from heat exhaustion hauling loads of fruits all day. Or if a worker in the T-shirt factory who made the very T-shirt I am wearing suffered from a work-related injury due to unsafe labor conditions, received low wages and had no health insurance, then had to be laid off. Who knows?

This being the case, we can't live our lives feeling guilty. Food is a pleasure - I won't lie. It's something I enjoy in solitude, and it's also something I enjoy sharing with others. So maybe someone might say that I'm writing all this as a scapegoat to excuse my recent fish/poultry consumption. One can argue that a killed animal, regardless of how kindly it was raised, in the end, is a killed animal. The debate on ethics and nonviolence regarding food choices centers on this, and this is where you can probably read the most heated arguments, opinions, even outright judgments and name-calling. Non-violence, huh? Ironic, I think.

We live in a world of ironies. Take the craze on reusable grocery bags. Pretty much every store right now sells reusable grocery bags, and yet maybe 75% or more (just a guess) of the food they sell are packaged in plastic with no recycling facilities nearby (thankfully, we do have recycling facilities nearby, which I am happy to note recycles all plastics from #1-7). But hey, reusable grocery bags are a great start. The reality is, it's cheaper for me to buy the pound of dried pasta packaged in plastic for $2 (which, ahem, I virtuously ironically pack in my old cloth tote bag) than it is to get the fresh pasta - made locally and minimally packaged - for $6-7 for a half-pound. Though I've splurged on the latter on occasion, I can't do it every time. Now this probably contradicts my preference for the buzzword-worthy "wild-caught" fish or "pasture-raised, local" (i.e., more expensive) chicken I recently ate - but this is more of a rare indulgence than it is an everyday occurrence. Where am I in the continuum?

So now what?

Because I think we inflict some degree of harm in any decision we make, my responsibility then is make the best possible (least harming) decisions given the circumstances of the situation, and to offset my less-than-perfectly ethical decisions with good decisions whenever I can. Because no one is perfect.

So I go to my university campus once or twice a week, and burn fossil fuels with each 45-minute drive. But on other days, I minimize driving and walk to do my errands in my neighborhood whenever possible - despite the fact that my area has a  WalkScore of only 54/100 (which translates to "somewhat walkable").

So sometimes A. and I eat a packaged, but grain- and whole-food based vegetarian sausage (which I have to say by the way, is really good - the smoked apple sage flavor is awesome. I'm not going to lie.) produced thousands of miles away in Seattle and shipped to our local grocery store in Cleveland. But I reduce and reuse/re-purpose whenever possible, and bring a bag of recyclables to the recycling dumpster each week.

And A. and I use whole milk. From a cow. From a local, family-run sustainable farm that raises artificial growth hormone-free and antibiotic-free cows. Which I feel better about than packaged soy milk. Sure, I can make my own almond milk from raw almonds. Well, these almonds are grown thousands of miles away, in California. What about the person who has a severe dairy and nut allergy, and has to take either packaged soy or rice milk? We all need to do what's best for our own bodies, families, communities.

Then I recently ate fish, from a restaurant that supports and sources from local farms. But perhaps I can use the energy and nourishment that this fish provided to do better at my job (an unpaid summer "job"). To encourage, and hopefully, inspire the graduate students I'm supervising this summer to be better teachers.

Are these farfetched arguments? Maybe.

I'm not saying all this to give myself a pat on the back. The point I'm trying to make is, I can offset my not-so-good choices with good ones in other ways. Every decision we make will be in a different point within the continuum. We just have to do the best we can overall.

As I said earlier, I'm no expert on ethics and I certainly don't have all the answers.

I feel fortunate to live in a situation in which I can make these choices, understanding that this is mostly a first-world debate. A shepherding family or community in a remote area will use the wool from their lambs to clothe themselves and protect themselves from the elements, and eat the flesh of the lamb to survive. Are they making unethical choices? No. How about the child who ravenously eats some kind of "fish" that comes in perfectly cut squares, filled with extenders and breaded, in a box, shipped in a truck from a thousand miles away and then fried in a non-hexane free oil and served in a styrofoam plate at lunch in school because that is the only meal he will get for that day? Or take that same food, served by a parent who was recently laid off and is forced into this situation because this kind of food is what she/he can get with food stamps and they need to stretch their $ as thinly as possible? They are doing this for their survival. Who am I to judge?

I think the other reason there is such a heated debate on the matter is that we do live in a situation in which we can make choices. It's not a question of survival, but choices. Local. Organic. Sustainable. PVC-free. BPA-free. Free of this and that and the other. Sure it all sounds elitist, and by no means are my own finances in unlimited supply. We do the best we can with the options and resources we have.

The issue of food choices seems to be one of the most polarizing topics recently. I only wish that, in this issue, one side does not blindly judge the other for the choices the other makes, but instead seek to understand, respect, and make individual decisions thoughtfully, food-wise and otherwise.

As a dear friend responded to me, when I wrote to her to share what I was thinking regarding my dilemma: "I had to choose the things I can and cannot do to 'save the world.' You, alone, cannot save the world. You do what you can, within the context of your life. Peace, your peace, also saves the world." (Thank you, DLH.

In the end, this is what matters:

Saw this bus during my evening walk with A. tonight
(after enjoying a delicious dinner of enchiladas with black beans, spinach, and potato)

As the great poet Rumi wrote: There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground. 

There are also hundreds of ways to practice nonviolence, kindness and compassion. Food-wise and otherwise.

If you made it this far - thank you for reading. I'm still wrestling with this dilemma and trying to make sense of it. I'd love to know what you think, friends.

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Jen said...

Mia, thanks for sharing your thoughts and challenges about food choices. The process can be paralyzing and divisive, but you're trying to make it mindful and to include multiple perspectives. That's not easy, because it doesn't lead you to the "right" answer (if only there were one!) but it does help to explore the choices that align with your values. Keep on sharing your journey -- it's helpful as I make mine :)

Mia said...

Hi Jen! I agree that it's hard to find the right answer - and yes it can be so paralyzing! I feel like I've been hung up thinking about this all week until finally I had to write about it.

In the end I guess we figure out what choices we can live with...

Now if my dad were reading this, he'd probably create an Excel spreadsheet of pros and cons and a point system to help me decide ;-)

Anne said...

have you heard of this organization started be chef michel nishan called Wholesome Wave:

haven't looked into it too much yet but the aim is to connect low-income families with local farmers so that they have access to better food.

and i love what DLH wrote to you! a great reminder!

Mia said...

Anne, that sounds awesome! I only looked through the website briefly but it sounds like they're doing really great things!

I remember reading about another organization (I can't remember the name of it) that provides mentoring to teens (low-income too, I think) for them to learn life skills/work skills in the food industry.

Also, there is a farm here in Medina, OH called Schmidt Family Farms (I get my honey from them). They also raise chickens (pasture-raised) and recently they took in some Burmese refugees to work in the farm and learn about farming.

Goodwill is everywhere!

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