Sorting Out My Food Values

In my last post I wrote of some of my hesitations and concerns about the food movement. They where not major concerns but simple annoyances or critiques that I’d felt. The conversation that ensued was wonderful and I really appreciate those who took the time to reply to what I’d written and engage in some dialog. They were convincing arguments and I appreciated them. I’m willing, like I said before, to make changes in my families food choices. In thinking through it further, I recognized some values I have that seemed, at least in my head, to counter making changes in my food choices.

I think I’ve traditionally thought of food choices as being related to two specific values: personal health and environment. Eating healthy is a way to make choices for your immediate family to have better personal health and avoid the obesity epidemic and related disease. Eating organic and/or local is better for our environment, less pesticides, gas used on factory farming, shipping, etc. Oh, and third, free-range meat and eggs as an animal rights value. I know there’s more to it then that, but that would be the quick summary of how I’ve thought about the food choices.

I’ll try to keep these brief, but below are some of my values that I’ve found in conflict with making food choice changes.

Most of the ethical decisions I’ve made related to my lifestyle cost less money then the alternative. Biking rather then driving for example or sweatshop-made clothing for thrift store items. Rather then buy lots of fair trade chocolate instead of slave-made chocolate, I just rarely buy chocolate at all, it’s a luxury item after all. None of these things increase my costs. We can probably just chalk this up to being extremely frugal, or cheap, however you want to look at it. I think this is one of the reasons that I find the switch to more expensive food options as difficult, because unlike almost all my other ethical choices, it will consistently cost more.

Opportunity Cost
This is one of the main reasons that I’m consistently looking for ways to spend less money, the opportunity cost of that money to do good for others. I’ve previously used the example of the end scene in Schindler’s List when he recognizes his watch could have bought the safety of more Jews. The opportunity cost of the watch had significant value, people’s lives. I feel the same way when I think about what our finances could be going to. If I could spend $30 a month extra on organic foods to ensure the health of my immediate family or I could sponsor a child to ensure their provision through life, I’d probably go with the child everytime.

People First
I think, whether or not you believe in Global Warming, caring for the planet is an important factor in the decisions that we make. To a lesser degree, I think there is some merit to treating animals with care. However, the thing that vastly trumps those values in my ethical system is people. So, issues of slave labor, sweatshops and worker rights will win out over environmental concerns every time. And I know that they aren’t mutually exclusive, that environmental impact is often a direct cause of terrible working conditions, etc. It’s the human impact that will dictate my decisions far more then the effect on environment or animals.

I think that’s enough for now. The exercise above is not to make an argument against changing my food choices, but rather, laying them out so that those who are more well read on the subject can help point me in the right direction and help me walk through making changes to my families food choices.

10 thoughts on “Sorting Out My Food Values”

  1. I'd just like to express me appreciation for starting this discussion. I feel even more involved after your explanation of your motivations and hesitations as they match mine point for point. I'm looking forward to the following discourse.

    1. Thanks Wesley. I'm really looking forward to coming to some clear views on this stuff. I know personally I've had unresolved views for quite a few years.

  2. Oops me again! Let's talk opportunity cost. I hear what you're saying about the $30 to help a kid in India. But I'd push back and say that there are different ways to think about opportunity cost. For example, Erin and I recently pulled 1/2 of our money out of KIVA to give to one local entrepreneur. That $750 could have been re-invested a few times over through KIVA, helping more than one person. But in this situation we felt like investing in this one person was the way the right thing to do. Not a better investment, just a different one, with a different opportunity cost.

    Secondly, let's look at an increased investment in food differently than $30. Let's look at it over the long term. I'm going to assume you spend $250/month for groceries. I bet if you were a wise consumer and began buying mostly local (when you can) and organic (when it counts), as well as adjusted your menu a bit to what's on sale, versus what you want to eat, you would spend maybe $400/month an increase of $150/month or $1800 over a year. Now let's say that $1800 represents 2% of your annual income. What does that 2% increase in investment buy you? Better health for your family, better tasting food (my opinion), you get to support local businesses, locally owned, more than likely paying a better wage. You're also better supporting workers further down the production line, and well the animals and the earth. To me, that 2% increase gets you quite a bit.

    just my 2 cents šŸ™‚

    1. Hey, so I totally agree with you on thinking of the difference in grocery budget as potentially supporting a better food system. It's something I would like to do. Keep in mind my values above, those that support worker rights are of top priority to me. If I could spend $150 more a month to ensure that the food system I was supporting improved worker's rights, I'd be all about it. If the food switch simply is an organic or not option, I don't care as much at the moment. So, how do I sort all that out? How do I figure out which choices move from industrial complex to supporting workers and which are just personal health related?

      Lead me!

  3. I'm with you–I try to eat as healthily as possible (most of the time–there are still plenty of times when I succumb to the desire for succulent junk food). Coming from a farm family, I grew up with lots of meat on the table (now we're mainly turkey and chicken as we can often get those the cheapest). I grow what I'm able to. I visit the Farmer's Market. Still, 92% of our food comes from Aldi. Once in a while we stock up on something at Costco. We go to Cub, Rainbow or Target with our monthly WIC check. We're on a budget that doesn't have wiggle room for moving a percentage from one column to our food budget to buy more organic. Even when we have a WIC check we can use at the Farmer's Market, it usually isn't able to be used from booths that are "certified organic." And local, organic, free-range meats are definitely out of the question.

    And therein lies the system question. We can work at changing the system one person at a time; we can provide our family healthier options. But healthy, environmentally-friendly food (especially meats, dairy & produce) tend to be a luxury for the upper-middle class and above.

    Also, my dad is a farmer. He doesn't necessarily buy into the organic philosophies. He's been rooted in the way he farms his whole life. It would take something big for him to change that. And the majority of small, family farms don't have the resources to change the way the farm (machinery costs tens–if not hundreds–of thousands of dollars), there aren't places for them to sell to in truly rural areas and they're enmeshed with the government (dependent upon their subsidies) to make an income. So I don't want to see my father, my uncles and my friends' parents struggle more than they've had to in life to eke out a living.

  4. Thanks for opening this up for discussion again. It is a hugely important topic.

    I will just address cost in this comment, to keep it short. As I noted in a my comment on your previous post, every food item has a "real" price.

    Americans have continually demanded lower prices for food. We want milk for $2/gallon, we want eggs for $2/dozen, we want $3 apples and so on. We have forgotten our ability to judge the quality of food and look mainly at the price. Who can blame us? Everybody has a tight budget right now.

    We have forced the producers of our foods to take short cuts to get the lowest price. Shortcuts are always faster and cheaper, thereby reducing the price that we see in the supermarket, but they inherently hide costs. People are paid low wages to harvest crops, animals are treated unfairly and the earth is polluted in the process.

    If you want people to be paid a living wage and not reduced to slaves, and if you want animals to be treated humanely and if you want producers of your food to not destroy the earth, you are going to have to pay more. There is no way around it. Like your chocolate example, you will end up buying less, but you will be buying better.

    To do so, you must shorten your food chain. Each link in the chain buries costs and adds environmental impact, and takes us further away from an human suffering we may be causing with our choices.

    Stay out of grocery stores as much as possible. Buy your food from people. Find people near you that make food and barter with them. It may make sense for you to get a costco (NOT sam's club obviously) membership to stock up on bulk items. They sell many organic bulk items, which can bring down the price. Natural food stores may seem to expensive, but they have the basics in bulk bins, and you can bring your own containers. Natural food stores are usually more mindful of their sources for bulk materials than a cub or target, and can usually answer any question you might have.

    One of the best things to do is shop at the farmer's market. I've found a surprising number of people that think that the market is too expensive. But it doesn't have to be. I was there on Saturday and bought all my organic veggies for the week for less than $30, and I got a lot of stuff. Yes we have a short season in MN, but you can purchase towards the end of the season when the market has an abundance of an item and freeze or can or dry it for later in the year.

    For that inevitable trip to the grocery store check out:

    For canned goods, we buy everything from Eden Organic, which is the only canned goods producer to NOT use BPA.

    Bottom line, if you want to eat the same foods you are now, but organic, local, sustainable and socially responsible, you are going to pay more. If you are willing to eat differently, there are plenty of ways to do it, and keep your costs low.

  5. I feel the same conflict about the increased cost of buying organic, because of both my sheer cheapness/frugality, and the opportunity cost. But there are a few things that have helped move me in that direction, so that my wife and I are now buying organic most of what we don't dumpster dive. One consideration is that while it is more expensive to buy our main staples of rice, beans, and flour organic rather than conventional, it's still much cheaper than most other food options. Second, I see environmental issues as people issues. I don't have some big theology of God's creation – it's just about loving my neighbor, including my neighbors today and in future generations who will be affected by environmental degradation and climate change. And lastly, I wonder if some of the practices of conventional agriculture and factory farms aren't just so destructive and rapacious that it's simply wrong for me to support them, whatever the cost in money or time to avoid doing so. You know? There could be that sort of dynamic you have with a straight, black-and-white, moral absolute or command, where you do what's right no matter the cost. I'm guessing that that's part of your feeling on chocolate, so that while it does cost a few more dollars a year to buy your small chocolate allowance fair trade, that is still the right thing to do. It would be wrong to instead buy that amount of chocolate made with slave labor, and then donate the difference.
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    1. You want to help me do a food audit? I'm very open to hearing views on the food thing, but I need specifics.

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