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Considering the ethics of eating

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:

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 ( & 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

Is Anything Molding in Your Refrigerator?

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about how much food is wasted because we supermarket shoppers prefer “attractive” produce. Ugly, misshapen, blemished produce doesn’t even make it in the doors of most large grocery stores. In fact, it often doesn’t make it out of the field! Not having been previously aware of the scope of this type of food loss, I had lots of questions about it.

So I was quite delighted to read this post from the Sierra Club on the same topic. It includes lots of great links to related information. In particular was a link to this report from the USDA’s Economic Research Service about food loss in the United States. It explains so much! Admittedly, some of their data is quite old, and the report itself is from January 2007. But even so, even adjusting for the possibility that the numbers have improved, much of what the report describes is still valid. It explains, in very understandable language, how both edible and inedible food is lost at each step of the food chain, beginning with the farm and ending with us throwing away moldy leftovers from our refrigerators.

A few statistics that caught my attention in the report:

“…about 96 billion pounds of food, or 27 percent of the 356 billion
pounds of the edible food available for human consumption in the United States,
were lost to human use… in 1995.” (pg. 3)

“If even 5 percent of the 96 billion pounds were recovered, that quantity
would represent the equivalent of a day’s food for each of 4 million people.”
(pg. 3)

“From foods forgotten and spoiled in the refrigerator to the uneaten
vegetables tossed in the garbage, consumer and foodservice food waste is the
single largest source of food loss in the marketing chain. Estimated at 91
billion pounds, this food loss accounted for 26 percent of the edible food
available for human consumption in 1995.” (pg. 6)

What astounding statistics! 91 of the 96 billion pounds of food lost each year in the United States is lost during and after it is prepared for eating! If those figures are accurate, imperfect produce is a significantly smaller problem then the food we leave on our plates at restaurants, the uneaten salad bar items, and the food we purchased with good intentions but failed to cook before it went bad.

It seems so recoverable! (See second statistic above.) It feels like something each of us could really act on. What would happen if we all started buying only what we could realistically prepare and eat in a given time period? What if, instead of leaving half our “supersized” meal on the plate at the restaurant, we took it home – and then actually ate the leftovers rather than just throwing them away a week later? Think of how many people the “extra” food we don’t buy or throw away could feed! And as a side benefit, think how much money would we save if we bought only what we actually ate!

I understand that this topic is really much more complex. There are many, many issues surrounding it, not the least of which is how this “extra” food would even get to the people who need it. But still. I love the closeness of these numbers. It’s not only what some distant farmer is deciding about his crops. It’s about what I’m doing with the food in my refrigerator, and what I’m doing at the restaurant on Friday night. It illustrates that my daily life is part of both the cause and solution of ensuring everyone can eat. And in that, I find power and a great source of hope.

Selecting the Perfect Produce


When you go to the grocery store to buy produce, how do you select precisely which, say, apples or green peppers you’re going to buy? I, for one, go for those that I deem have the best appearance. I reject those with too many spots, I try to choose a color and ripeness that seem good, and depending what I want it for, size sometimes also plays a role.

And then I read this, in the book The End of Food by Paul Roberts:

“Because consumers have come to expect their produce to be as uniform and blemish free as packaged foods, retailers insist that fruits and vegetables meet exacting criteria for quality, visual attractiveness, size, and weight. Avocados headed for the United Kingdom, for example, must come within a half ounce of a target weight. Green beans bound for France must be straight and precisely 100 millimeters long.” (pg. 65)

Hey! I’m that consumer! Well, ok, I don’t require every bean to be exactly the same length. But blemish-free, attractive, size – that’s all me.

The passage goes on to explain that because retailers will only accept a portion of what’s grown, farmers overplant to ensure they get enough perfect produce to meet their agreements with retailers. One exporter said his retail sales account for about 50% or 60% of the running beans he grows; the rest aren’t straight enough. Another 30% of his crop can be processed. But the remaining 10 to 20 percent is thrown away. Though the passage doesn’t explain why, from the larger context of the book, I assume it’s because the remaining 10% or 20% is irregular to a degree that it can’t easily go through the mechanized processing equipment and therefore is not worth the cost of processing.

Think of that. Farmers intentionally grow more than they can sell with the intent of throwing tons of it away! And somehow, I’m wrapped up in this waste, because I’m the one demanding perfect food. I’m not sure what to do with that knowledge. Perhaps the book will help me out; I’m only halfway through it. But there are certainly some opportunities here. Opportunities for me to be more mindful of my food buying criteria, and surely an opportunity for tons of irregular food to be put to better use.

Does anyone know more about this? There’s got to be more to this story, and I’d love to hear about it. Please comment if you have something to add!

-Nancy Michaelis