Considering the ethics of eating

Posted on October 29, 2009 by elcaworldhunger

The following was written by Dr. Warren Chain, who recently led a trip during which participants learned about and reflected on ethical aspects of our food production systems and food choices.

From Thursday October 22 through Sunday, October 25 in Waco, TX, ELCA World Hunger gathered 20 campus and congregational leaders from Region 4 for a Leadership Training on the Ethics of Eating. The event was held at World Hunger Relief, a Christian organization which trains individuals in sustainable farming practices that are useful both in the United States and abroad. This event focused on three issues at the intersection of food and faith: justice issues affecting workers in food production, the intersection between agriculture and climate change, and hunger.

We engaged with a wide variety of speakers – Food Worker Activists Anita Grabowski and Sean Sellers, Theologian Shannon Jung, Waco Hunger Activists Shirley Langston and Kenneth Moerbe, and Climate Change speakers Dr. Travis Miller and Dr. Benjamin Champion. We also engaged in a number of activities. On Friday, we prepared one of our meals from live chickens and vegetables that we gleaned. On Saturday, we visited Farmer James Nors of Nors Dairy, a raw milk dairy farm. Through these speakers and activities, I gained a good deal of new information and had a number of personal revelations; I will share two of them.

On Saturday morning, Dr. Benjamin Champion provided an overview of some of the challenges associated with eating ethically, with a focus upon the impact of our food choices upon climate change. His research examined local food systems in the state of Kansas. There are a variety of ethical concerns to think about as one eats. For example, were the workers who produced and distributed this food paid a living wage? Was the food produced locally and sustainably, and with the intent to minimize its carbon impact? I was struck, in particular, by his data which examined the carbon impact of various aspects of the food system. Among those who are concerned about the carbon impact of their activity, much discussion has focused on eating locally. But, Ben’s data suggests that our own local transporation to and from the store where we buy our food, combined with the carbon impact of our food storage, can actually have a higher carbon impact than the carbon impact that stems from tranporting industrial food to our local store. This finding complicates the idea that eating locally is always better for the environment. If you would like to learn more, see Ben’s presentation (particularly slides 60 – 63) which is posted on the The Table, the World Hunger social networking site: http://elcaworldhunger.ning.com/group/region4ethicsofeating/forum/topics/benjamin-champions.

On Saturday evening, we screened the documentary film Mississippi Chicken, and afterwards had a dicussion with the producer Anita Grabowski and her husband, John Fiege, who was the film’s director. The movie chronicles Anita’s work to create a worker justice center in Mississippi to organize undocumented poultry workers in the summer of 2004. We began to hear about her work on Friday, as Anita participated on a panel that dealt with the justice issues faced by poultry workers and farm workers. We continued our learning with Mississippi Chicken, which highlights the multiples barriers poultry workers face as they seek to feed their families. While working in these poultry plants, workers face terrible conditions. Futhermore, workers are vulnerable to exploitation by plant managers while on the job, and by local police and criminals outside of work. These workers are vulnerable to exploitation because they often are either unclear about their rights, or are reticent to engage with the police due to their undocumented status. At the end of the documentary, our group was subdued and stunned by what we saw – it was not a graphic movie, but the social injustices faced by these workers are heartbreaking. Afterwards, John and Anita led a discussion about the film and how the individuals we met through the film have fared since it was produced. This film can be borrowed from ELCA World Hunger or it can be purchased from Amazon. I recommend it highly.

These are just two of the experiences that impacted me over the weekend. If you are interested in working on issues of food and faith, a number of ways to engage emerge from this event. I invite you to join our discussion on The Table (http://elcaworldhunger.ning.com/ & http://elcaworldhunger.ning.com/group/region4ethicsofeating). In addition, all of the participants will host an activity in their sending campus or congregation. So, if you see an activity on The Table that you would like to participate in or would like to sponsor in your area, feel free to connect with one of us to participate or to gain assistance.

Warren Chain, Ph.D.
ELCA World Hunger

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