Ethical Eating


JUDY VALENTE: Mary Jo McMillin is a cookbook author from the Chicago suburbs. When she shops, she looks for fruits and vegetables that are in season, preferably locally grown. She doesn’t buy processed foods or fast food and makes sure she knows where the meat she’s buying comes from. It’s not just about green eating, or even healthful eating, but eating ethically.

MARY JO MCMILLIN: I’ve been using this brand of chicken for a long time and I’ve researched them and I know that they come from not very far away, and they’re produced on small farms. It’s done with high standards. They’re fed a vegetarian diet. They’re raised on these Amish farms. They’re sort of religious chickens, you know.

post01-ethicaleatingVALENTE: But there’s nothing funny about the way some large factory farms operate. Advocates of ethical eating protest the way animals are often kept in crowded, unsanitary conditions and injected with growth hormones and antibiotics. Norman Wirzba is professor of theology, ecology and rural life at Duke University.

NORMAN WIRZBA: Cattle are meant to eat grass, to live in pasture. Chickens are, are meant to roam and be outside, and when you think about how industrial eating practices, right, stifle that inner drive, this natural drive that these animals have, it’s a violation of their ability to be what they are.

VALENTE: Another frequent criticism of the food industry is the widespread use of preservatives and artificial flavoring to prolong shelf life.

post06-ethicaleatingWIRZBA: That’s not to say we don’t do any processing, right, or any refrigeration or any preserving, no, we have to do some of that, but we don’t need to do it to the degree that we do, because as we do more of it, what we’re discovering is that we are paying for it with our own illness.

TARA SMITH: We have the safest, least expensive, most abundant food supply in the world, and that’s no accident.

VALENTE: Tara Smith of the American Farm Bureau Federation:

SMITH: You can find nutritious food year round in the grocery store. And if you look, and you’re willing to buy certain products, you can find relatively inexpensive healthy food products year round.

VALENTE: Ethical eating means looking at food as more than a commodity and eating as more than a biological function. Eating, it is said, connects us to the mysterious and miraculous character of life.

STUDENT: Oh, my gosh. This one is a little larger than this one, as you can see…

post02-ethicaleatingVALENTE: Many Americans are getting back to the garden. These students in Cedar Grove, North Carolina brave intense summer heat as they learn to grow fruits and vegetables in a community garden.

STUDENT: You can just pull it right out, and just rinse them off and you can eat them.

KATE FORER: Right here we have sweet potatoes, that are doing fabulously, as you can tell.

VALENTE: Kate Forer, who manages the garden, is also an ordained minister.

FORER: Having the experience of planting a seed and having the faith that it’ll grow into a plant that will eventually sustain me is a spiritual experience. And ultimately I really, really feel like food is a sacred gift from God, and that’s something that we tend to forget about in our culture.

VALENTE: Small faith communities like this one are sprouting up all across the country to advance the cause of ethical eating, teaching more than just good gardening practices.

FORER: I also feel like we’re teaching people how to cultivate peace in their communities just by working together. Just by dong a task together that’s not always easy or fun. I mean, sometimes gardening is hot and frustrating and stressful. But being able to work through those things together can be really powerful.

VALENTE: For others, personal gardening is also an opportunity for spiritual growth. Everyday, Mary Jo McMillin walks about a half mile to a public park where for a yearly fee of $32, she can cultivate her own plot of land and her prayer life.

post03-ethicaleatingMCMILLIN: Going to the garden is part of a spiritual practice for me. I use that time to think about what I’m thankful for, and to try to remember people in my past that I’m thankful for, and my family that surrounds me now. It’s just my daily meditation. I feel I’m in a place where things are really alive and growing. We’re all so busy, adding extra hours to our fitness routine, adding an extra hour to our e-mail, Twitter, and Facebook, whatever. But maybe we need really to sometimes add that extra hour to what we’re ingesting, what we’re feeding ourselves.

SMITH: I don’t know about you but I don’t have time to make every loaf of bread I eat.

VALENTE: What about the person who says, “I’m busy. I don’t have time to worry about where my food comes from”?

WIRZBA: I think we need to make food a priority because food touches so much. It touches personal health, it touches education, the social development of people, right, as well as touching economic issues and ecological issues. So food needs to be a priority.

post04-ethicaleatingVALENTE: One downside to eating ethically, at least these days, is that it’s probably going to cost more, as shoppers often discover when they buy organic food, or from local farmers’ markets.

SMITH: Right now, during these economic times, we have one out of every eight Americans is currently on food stamps. Budgets, when it comes to purchasing food items, are very important to most American households.

WIRZBA: I know that there is a lot of concern about the fact that if you want to buy organic food it’s more expensive, or you want to buy locally produced food it’s more expensive. But we have to ask the question, well, what do we really value? Do we value healthy land, clean water, vibrant farm communities?

SMITH: I certainly feel my nutrition is my personal responsibility and I think that folks should take some personal responsibility for being sure that their diet is the way that it should be. There is no lack of option for food products here in the United States. If you don’t choose to eat those healthy food products, though, no one can force-feed them to people.

post05-ethicaleatingVALENTE: The importance of food, or sharing a meal, is deeply rooted in religious tradition. McMillin, for instance, bakes the fresh bread her congregation uses at its communion services.

MCMILLIN: It takes us back to the point that this really isn’t just a big symbolical ritual, it’s also a meal that feeds both the body and the spirit. So many families have come up to me at church and said “our children just love to have real bread at communion.”

FORER: (speaking to students) It’s good to see everybody here.

VALENTE: In most of the world’s religions, eating traditionally involved a blessing, and an expression of thanks, a practice Forer and others say has become all but lost in our mass-production, fast- food culture.

FORER: All right, let’s pray. Gracious God we give you thanks…

Grace is a way of pausing and remembering the creator who has given us this. But for me grace is also a way to acknowledge the other people who have brought the food to us.

WIRZBA: Saying grace, besides being a sort of ritual act, I think is also a political act, because if you’re truly saying grace and you’re remembering this food that you’re about to eat, you should also be committing yourself to the well-being of the sources of that food.

MCMILLIN: I remember my mother sitting in front of a perfectly ripened peach, We had peach trees, the first ones that we had — and saying, “I’m going to eat this very slowly. Just think how long it took to grow.”

VALENTE: Advocates of ethical eating say if we pay more attention to where our food comes from, we will begin to see it not as something that just happens, but as a gift.

For Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly, this is Judy Valente in Cedar Grove, North Carolina.

  • James Reiss

    This important piece deals with religion and ethics in a way that I, a secular person, find in no way objectionable. Reporter Judith Valente covers the issues intelligently, with verve. Her interviewees are equally smart and lively. Overall, kudos and thanks go to you for a superior job of enlightened reporting.

    I’d like to recommend that you upload the audio portion of this segment onto the Public Radio Exchange (PRX): . I’m a regular reviewer for PRX. I’ve won three consecutive annual awards from PRX for my critical comments. I’d very much like to review this show.

    Please let me you if you decide to upload this great show onto PRX. Thanks!


    James Reiss

  • Julie Butterfield

    What a breath of fresh air to discover a group of religious people who are willing to admit, although their bible promotes eating meat, that by and large the production of meat is gruesome and eating large-scale produced meat is unhealthful.

    I’m pleased to know that some religious people are getting on board with the whole food movement and the humane treatment of animals that they plan to eat. Even if they think a god made possible their nourishment, they see that sustainable food production is beneficial for all and the environment.

    (It’s especially good news to counter somewhat the backwards news coming from the Vatican.)

  • Babykat

    What a wonderful concept! I do considery myself an “ethical eater”. I watched Food Inc. a few months ago and it completely changed the way that I look at food. My family has gone fully organic and even though I find myself doing more cooking, I also realize that we are eating healthier and everything tastes so much better. I also pay a little bit more and that is all right. We are investing in our future and there is no better way to spend our money than in ourselves and in our health.
    It is unfortunate that here in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, we don’t have many organic farmer’s markets. So I do our shopping mostly at Whole Foods. At least, I know where my food comes from, and they are also supplied by Floridian farmers so that is a big plus.
    We used to enjoy eating out a lot more before watching Food Inc. And I miss it, but I refuse to support restaurants that are not willing to make the change. I will simply NOT give them my money. Same thing with other grocery stores like Publix and Winn Dixie. Go organic, get rid of agricultural mobsters like Perdue, Smithfield and Monsanto derived products, and you will get my business back.

  • Diane Carr

    I would like to add that Ethical Eating is the name of the 2008-2012 “study-action” issue of the entire Unitarian Universalist Church. They are looking at how our food choices impact the environment (especially pollution from animal agriculture) , people (how food workers are treated), and farm animals (factory farms are invisibly inhumane).

    The factory farm footage in this piece is not the exception – it is the rule. Factory farms supply over 95% of our meat. Though a woman in your piece knew where the store’s chicken came from, it is very rare that people know – in fact major grocers do not like to divulge this information. Cheaper meat means more inhumane treatment.

  • Yogin Suthar

    Ethical Eating? – Did you mean to say Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, and other Eastern religions?

    To have a piece on ethical eating without any mention of the world’s original great schools of thought based on the principles of non-violence (ahimsa), harmony between spirit-body-food (ayurveda), and respect for the natural world was shocking. I have noticed a consistent focus on Christianity on your show. However, in this case, the association between Christianity, based on the idea of man’s dominion over the natural world, and ethical eating, was laughable. I’m glad there was a nice chuckle over the “religious chickens” comment. However, in the great Eastern religions in which meat consumption is considered a vestige of our barbaric age, the idea of ethical meat or ethical slaughter is an oxymoron.

    The overall idea of this segment was a good one. However, not crediting the religions who are the forefathers of this area of thought that constitutes a core of their ideology was either negligent, biased, ignorant, or some combination thereof. I wish Religion & Ethics Weekly were more balanced, or renamed to “Judeo-Christian Ethics Weekly”.

  • susan

    “We have the safest, least expensive, most abundant food supply in the world.” — isn’t ironic then that people are so unhealthy and we have an obesity epidemic in this country.

  • Fr. ian Yorston

    I like the idea of community that the article promotes. Sharing a meal together as a family or church or group of friends. Eating healthy foods provided for us by our Creator and giving thanks to Him for that provision.

  • John Hawkins

    We have reached new depths of shallowness!

    First of all I understand producing natural food and eating it. I am against cruel treatment of animals. However, yet again we have taken something that is a benefit to ourselves and should be just common sense and congratulate ourselves for doing it.

    I am fascinated by the warm feelings we get by helping a chicken enjoy pleasant life and one day get to have dinner with rich folks. But wait…they are the dinner!

    Might I suggest something radical and send some of our food money (enough that it hurts) and diverting it to help the many families in the US and Canada ( and around the world) who do not have enough. Now that would be ethical!

  • Pamphylla McCarron

    I found the program shocking, shocking that a woman holding a big hunk of a slaughtered animal was discoursing on “ethical” eating. Eating animals, whether ones presumed to have had a lovely life, been fed exquisitely. local, or “humanely” killed, is a cruel unnecessary retardataire practice. Vegetarianism is a step toward more ethical eating and represents progress. No religion, ancient or contemporary, need present its doctrines to come to this realization.

  • Farmer Jon

    I was very disturbed by this segment. I am very familiar with the organic, local or slow food movement. However I have not yet heard the ethical eating spin. I am very disappointed to now see this movement being called ethical eating. I would argue that it is anything but ethical. I will start out by disclosing that I am a large scale row crop farmer. The agriculture being promoted in this segment sounds nostalgic but it leads to significantly less output and efficiency. While Norman Wirzba touched slightly on the cost he glossed over what that really means. To the average American maybe it doesn’t mean much more than a increase of 10-15% in their grocery bill. However, If this kind of agriculture is more widely adapted I think it is safe to say that we would have little to no exports. Many global populations have come to rely heavily on the the US for their main source of protein. Whether this is right or wrong I am in no place to judge who gets to eat and who doesn’t. I’ll put in in my frame of mind for you. Am I going to feed the food elitists in the US or the citizens of the US, China, and India that are already spending 30-80% or more of there income on food. As a farmer, I choose the latter of the two.

  • Allison C. Whitfield

    It is true that healthy/ethical eating will benefit all of us in the long run in regards to how animals are treated in this present society. But, we mustn’t forget that the poor in this country and around the world cannot afford to think or act in this way. The very basic needs of survival depend upon whatever food is available to them. They do not have the choice of rejecting food just because it was presented to them in an unethical way. If we are to have a conscience on this subject, shouldn’t it be based upon making food (all food) easily and readily available at an affordable price for all. The garden should be for everyone to enjoy and not just for those who can afford it. The raising of chickens in this way though harsh, provide for the needy in the amount of hundreds of millions. Until we come up with a way in which to do this in an “ethical” way, how can we judge? And how can those in need not eat and enjoy the benefits of a provided meal however way it was manufactured.

  • Frank Clemente

    Where have you been Tara!
    We have the most expensive food system in the world.
    Food travels an average of 1,500 to transport it from farm, packing, distribution,
    transportation, storage, shelving at the store, and processing waste sent to our lakes, rivers,the poor and trash bins. Consider the cost of disposing of packaging and labeling.
    Our government subsidizes tons of grains, cotton, etc. This is done to lower the cost to compete with the Africans, and other countries.
    We have the highest use and cost per acre of pest controls, fertilizers and machinery debt.
    Farmers are going out of business. The pollutants associated with high tech farming are costing
    our rivers, lakes, and killing beneficial organizms in the soil.

    Is this low cost food?

    Compare that with local growing, and home grown vegetables, ( No parafin sprays, no pesticides, no
    machinery debt, 100ft or less from kitchen to vegetable bed. Lower cost per square foot.
    No storage costs. No throw-away plastics, wrappers, or paper . I showed a kid a bunch of wheat.
    I asked him ,”What is this?’ He did not know. I told him it was wheat. He looked at me and ” No way,
    wheat comes in a box? Consider the high cost of children not knowing where food comes from. That’s
    why we have fat people. This another long term cost to our nation.


  • Robert Murphy

    Food stamps receive one quick mention in the main “Ethical Eating” article…. However, little, if anything, is said about the continuing problems of poverty, hunger and malnutrition, lack of access to food,the decline of social service programs, the exploitation of farm workers, and related concerns…. The Great Recession started in the year 2008 and, for lots of people, it never ended. In some parts of the South and Southwest, one person in five is now dependent on some form of food assistance…… So it’s important to ask, “Who and what guides the new ‘Ethical Eating’ conversation? Who’s included and who’s being pushed out of the discussion?”

    Key points: Different socio-economic groups are involved with food in different ways. Some groups have an abundance of food while others are close to starvation. Jesus focused much of his attention on feeding the hungry. It’s a point that, traditionally, many religious groups appreciated. Christians, especially, need to raise the question, “What do we really value?” In the food conversation, should the emphasis be on entertaining the rich with some kind of gourmet experience? Or should “ethical eating” concerns move people of faith, first, to more involvement with social justice concerns? WWJD?

    A few weeks ago, I heard a young preacher lecture for twenty minutes about the joys of “ethical eating.” This was in West Virginia, in an old town on the verge of economic collapse. At the back of the church, there were posters for the local soup kitchen…. The young preacher – a university graduate from up North – ignored the the local reality in order to talk about the happy experience of eating tangerines…. Amazing! If this is the future for religion and “ethical eating” chatter, I’ll go elsewhere in my search for Christianity.

  • Chris Gregory

    Obviously for any one article to cover ever facet of such a cultural shift or every current issue we face would be vastly longer and require a documentary about a day long if not longer. So I see no reason for criticizing the lack of such details in such a short piece. This isn’t a book or a documentary about every single one of the worlds issues. Anyone who tries to even face all of human suffering or plagues upon mankind at once will be crushed by the weight of the world and will be stricken with such depression that he or she would be little or no use. So let’s try and stay focused on the subject matter and not the lack of it.

    While ethical eating is a part of many Eastern cultures and religions…It was NEVER a western culture or been a part of western religion. So pointing out such things is irrelevant. It is a cultural shift, and that is very important to note. Before the cart runs away with the horse though, I would also like to point out and it is a proven study that if all of the farms that currently produce meat changed to farming produce, North America alone could produce enough to feed the world. Not to add injury to insult, but it is also a very proven point that we can get more protein from vegetables than we ever could from meat. If you haven’t researched it yourself, don’t bother trying to argue that I’m wrong.

    I wonder how many people or even Christians have read their Bible? I’m not trying to preach, but no where in the Bible does it state God commands one to eat meat. At the most it states humankind should take dominion over the animals. Unless dominion has a new definition, it doesn’t mean to eat them. However, it does say God does provide such animals for food. NO WHERE DOES IT STATE YOU MUST EAT MEAT. Here are a couple of those references:
    Leviticus 7:23, Leviticus 3:17, Genesis 1:29, Proverbs 23:20-21, Romans 14:1-23, Genesis 9:3, Genesis 1:28

    In most religions I believe there is a level of compassion instituted. Even though the Bible would deem these individuals weak for not eating meat, it does state one shall not pass judgement….kind of counter-intuitive if you ask me. The Bible also states one shall not eat fat or become a glutton. From what I can see, there are many within the great Christian churches who are guilty of such sins….and this is from my perspective. I grew-up on assistance and now I am able to give to others. From my perspective, there are many who are guilty of eating more than their need of meat. From the perspective of those who are starving, I could only assume the numbers go up.

    Growing-up on meat in this, meat in that…I’ll be honest, it wasn’t easy changing to a vegetarian diet. However, after making the switch, I can’t even tell you how much more energy I had each day. I was able to reduce the amount of my medications and haven’t felt better in my life.

    So to those who argue, it’s required by your religion…I beg you to try to prove it! To those who say it’s a socioeconomic thing, when you can grow a cow for me in my backyard I’ll start believing it. The complicated mess of agribusiness and corruption isn’t as tangled and unmanageable as some fall hopeless in believing.
    All we need to do is eat more locally grown produce to change it all.