Vote with your plate: On the politics of meat
With food stamp use at record highs and climbing every month, a program once scorned as a failed welfare scheme now helps feed one in eight Americans and one in four children.
People are hungry in America. Our economic collapse hits children and working families right in the stomach. Lost jobs, lost over-time, higher expenses, like healthcare, all mean less food. And children are most effected:
A recent study by Mark R. Rank, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis, startled some policy makers in finding that half of Americans receive food stamps, at least briefly, by the time they turn 20. Among black children, the figure was 90 percent.
Half of all children, hungry neighbors!
As much as one might forget them gathered around tables groaning with holiday food and cheer, they are the context for the choices made by the privileged and lucky, a group in which I am privileged and lucky enough to belong. Instead of lining up at a food pantry or counting food stamps while the end of the month approaches, I’m spending a weekend celebrating both a traditional Thanksgiving and a simply joyous nontraditional NS-Day where my biggest problem is creatively finding ways to use leftovers.
But the problem may not just be that more people have less money, although the recession and poverty–especially among people with jobs–clearly drives much new hunger. Nor are the 40% of calories that America simply throws out alone responsible, although waste is also important. In fact, that waste may just be a symptom of a problem sometimes seen as the solution: the industrialized, global food system…no, change that…the industrialized, global calorie-delivery system that floats to our tables on unsustainable oceans of oil and gas. Like Michael Pollan, and others, have been showing, our food system is badly broken.
While you often hear, starting with Earl Butz who was Richard Nixon’s Secretary of Agriculture, that without petrochemical-based large-scale monoculture farming people will go hungry, the fact is that the system he helped put in place does not work and people do go hungry–of course, large agra-businesses make tons of money and some people get fat while remaining hungry, but that’s a different story. And the need for the current system is not so clear, despite the supposed wisdom of Butz. For example, Bill McKibben points out in Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future (2007), that monoculture farming does indeed maximize nutritional yield per individual farmer. But sustainable polycultures (what used to be called a “family farm”) maximizes nutritional yield per acreage. In other words, we probably don’t need Monsanto and Archer Daniels Midland controlling so much of what we eat.
And that gets me, finally to the point of this post: we (you) don’t have to take part in a systems that helps create hunger–as well as causing diabetes and heart disease while diminishing quality of life and destroying the planet, but that’s another different story. If you are privileged and lucky enough to have discretionary income after basic needs are met then you can vote with your plate. Our choices can help change a food system still sensitive to consumer demand. How you use your nutritional vote, if you are privileged and lucky enough to have one, is up to you.
Here’s one of the votes I cast with my plate this past holiday weekend:
Eat meat from the 1%
The story of meat production in America is an environmental, moral, and health disgrace. 99%, of the meat we consume gets raised in environmentally destructive, antibiotic-infused large feedlots and factory farms; ruminants who should eat grass are fattened with grains, poultry are kept in cages too small for them to even turn around, pigs create lagoons of destructive waste product. These animals are then treated like the commodity products they’ve become and inhumanely slaughtered.
The latest popular retelling of this story comes from Jonathan Safran Foer narrating the horrors of factory farming in his recent book Eating Animals. But he makes the mistake of advising people to become a vegetarian, even a vegan, two mistakes actually.
First, his advice lumps together local, humane farmers with the truly awful factories. These farmers already have to battle regulations designed to support large agri-business. Sometimes even finding a slaughterhouse so they can bring an animal to market is impossible. They don’t need–nor does the long-term development of a sustainable food system–erudite, well-intentioned novelists driving customers away. The greatest good for the greatest number would be served by voting with your food choices for local, sustainable farmers.
Second, Foer ignores the social harm and environmental devastation that a vegetarian or vegan diet can cause. For example, the monoculture production of soybeans requires tremendous investments of global-warming petrochemicals. Farm-workers are often treated with the same sensitivity as are factory-farm animals. Vegetarians or vegans are totally entitled to their preferences and their choices; they are not entitled to any assumption of moral superiority.
In fact, in the politics of eating–how to vote with one’s plate–the conflict is not meat vs. no-meat, evil carnivores vs. angelic vegetarians. Rather, the conflict about which the privileged and lucky inevitably take sides is the conflict between local, sustainably produced food and large agribusiness catering to the expectation of always available cheap food, a 365-day a year simulation of peak-harvest.
When I paid a little extra for the local, farm-raised turkey through Pete Taliaferro who runs my local CSA and the bacon (ok, so we added some to the stuffing) from Paul and Stephanie who own Veritas Farms, I was eating meat from the 1%, casting a vote with my plate for a more sustainable food system while having a great meal.
With privilege and luck comes an opportunity to do good while living good; why not eat from the 1%?