Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Trouble with Food

This past month, I received my copy of The Lutheran magazine--it's the official magazine of the ELCA.  The cover story read "The Trouble with Food."  (The link is an abbreviated article.)

Pertinent quotes:

The trouble is that the food in our grocery stores has “background.” It has been grown, harvested or slaughtered, processed, packed, shipped, distributed, stocked and shelved by the time we place it in our carts.

And at each step along the way, questions arise about the ethics of our eating. Questions that might complicate our customary ways of relating to food. Questions that also have theological dimensions, but ones most of us haven’t been asking since our food systems have become more technological, globalized and profit-driven.

A Lutheran ethics of food starts with the recognition that we are all part of systems that we create and support--either directly or indirectly--and ends with a hopeful account of what it means to be free in service to others and to creation.  A Lutheran food ethics should include room to think and work toward the improvement of our systems, and to develop awareness of the background of our choices.  Ethics is always messy, and it almost always involves tradeoffs.

So does God's grace extend to Minnesotans who eat strawberries in January?  Of course it does.  Does this mean there are not problems with this picture?  No, it does not.

Food is a necessity.  There are no two ways about it.  We have to eat.  It is a requirement.  This is not in dispute.

And it is not in dispute that in the U.S. most of us do indeed have choices in regards to the food which we purchase--including the fact that we can choose to purchase relatively fresh fruit when it is out of season in our areas as we have the ability to preserve and ship it around the globe.

There are some who decry that the use of preservatives and pesticides and herbicides are killing us, but those notions are actually destroyed by the data: just take a look at the life expectancy in the early 1900's versus now at the beginning of the 21st century.  Our increasing health is due, in no small part to our ability to provide relatively inexpensive, healthy food year round.  This is perhaps one of those tradeoffs that Sam Thomas should have put in his article.

But the article is less concerned with facts and more concerned to get people to think ethically about the food choices they make.  As Thomas says, "Ethics are messy."  Indeed they are.  For Thomas gives little consideration to the reality most people face when it comes to food choices today.

Not everyone has the ability or space to grow their own food--even if it is a little.
Not everyone (in fact, quite a few folks) do not have the luxury of shopping at farmer's markets or for organic foods which are much more pricy.

When shopping for my family of five, we hit the specials at the local chain grocery store.  We have to.  Otherwise, our food costs would be out the roof.  To keep the kids eating healthier, I buy all kinds of fruits and vegetables--fresh and frozen--when they are out of season.  I do this as a parent knowing my kids need those nutrients to develop into strong, healthy adults.  Tradeoffs.

Do I know about the ethics of food production?  Sure.  I grew up with a very close connection to my family farm.  I know quite a bit about the injustices of farming.  (Try beginning with the fact that farmers are the only folks who are told what they will be offered for their crops--and when they rebel against the system and try to sell crops themselves, they are usually investigated!)

But the question is: should our conscience be bothered by such things?

Thomas is astute when he says that we are a part of systems that we create and support either directly or indirectly.  But what Thomas does not lift up is the fact that such systems mirror our own human nature: they are both saintly and sinful.  They produce both good and bad, and there will be no escape from this reality this side of eternity.

It doesn't matter what you try to do, you will commit injustice--with food or otherwise.

Should your conscience be burdened by such a thing?

The Lutheran response is, "No."  When we go to God and ask for forgiveness, we can rest assured our sins are forgiven: those we know of and those we don't know of.  We know we are a part of a sinful world and that we cannot be perfect in all we say and do.  We know there are systems we participate in which we cannot escape and are dependent upon which are not perfect and cannot be perfected.  We would like things to be different, but we know that no matter how much effort we put forth, we will not eradicate sin.  We strive to do so within our sphere of influence, but are we to allow ourselves to be burdened by things which are completely and totally out of our control?

Does the budget strapped family need to worry about where their food comes from?
Does the worker at the food pantry need to feel guilt about accepting donations from a corporate food chain?
Does the person eating strawberries in January in Minnesota need to worry about whether it is ethical or not to do so?

In a word: no.  The church has no business burdening people's consciences with such matters.