What Should I Eat?

An ethical who eats meat "carefully, with some inevitable guilt," asks: Does the way we shop for food really make a difference? Is political activism better for the environment in the long run than our individual small steps?

Although Louise Heit-Radwell, a dance educator in Brooklyn, New York, has been a vegetarian since college, it’s a struggle to find protein sources for her daughter and son. “We used to eat a lot of tofu, but there are health issues because there’s estrogen in it, and boys aren’t supposed to have estrogen. And soy is overprocessed,” she explained. Plus, her husband has high cholesterol, so they have to limit their consumption of dairy products. “Now I’m trying to eat more legumes and lentils. I have to find things my kids are willing to eat, because I’m not cooking three different meals.” Heit-Radwell sighed. “I don’t want to make my kids total nuts.”

One day Jessica Philips (not her real name) found herself in Trader Joe’s supermarket, staring at the egg cartons. “One carton said organic free-range. One carton said organic cage-free. Some just said cage-free with DHA” (an additive in chicken feed that’s supposed to improve infant brain development and reduce the risk of heart disease in adults). Philips, a Los Angeles lawyer and mother of three, finally chose the free-range. “I’m a vegetarian,” she said, “and it seemed to me that free-range meant a better treatment of animals.” A few days later, checking her refrigerator, Philips realized that she had previously bought yet another carton of eggs, this one labeled cage-free and free-roaming. “There is only so much time you can spend on this,” she groaned.

For Carie Carter, rabbi of the Park Slope Jewish Center in Brooklyn — the synagogue I belong to — food juggling begins with one clear requirement: “If it’s not kosher, I’m not going to eat it.” The next steps are more complex. “If it’s kosher but animals are not treated humanely and workers are treated poorly, I’m not going to eat it.” However, that’s almost impossible to know unless conditions are so bad that they make news, as happened with the big kosher meatpacker Agriprocessors Inc. in 2008. On top of all those factors, Carter has been making more efforts to buy organic food since her daughter, Noa, was born in 2007. Organic produce is fairly easy to find, but kosher organic chicken is a problem. So Carter ends up getting nonorganic kosher chicken from a company that at least hasn’t had any bad headlines.

Organic. Free-range. Cage-free. Barn-roaming. Free-roaming. Local. Natural. No preservatives. No antibiotics. No added hormones. No added steroids. No animal byproducts. Not genetically modified. Grass-fed. Vegetarian diet. Family-farmed. Certified humaneraised. Sustainable. Dolphin Safe. Fair-trade. Vegetarian. Vegan. Kosher. Low-calorie. Fat-free. Reduced-fat. Trans fat-free. Sugar-free. Caffeine-free. Gluten-free. Low-cholesterol. No-salt.

How sanitary are the conditions in which the food was grown, raised, processed, packed, and shipped? Where does the food come from? Is it in season? How many pounds of greenhouse gases did it take to grow, package, and transport the food? If it’s from a developing country, were the local farmers compensated according to fair-trade criteria? How are the workers treated? Do they get proper training and safety equipment? Are they unionized? If animals are involved, how are they treated? What are they fed? What kind of fertilizer is used? If the product includes fish, is the species endangered? Are the fish likely to contain traces of mercury? Were any at-risk habitats damaged to grow the crops or raise the animals? Is the packaging recyclable?

Where did you buy your food: At a farmers market? Through a community-supported agriculture program? At a food co-op? At a health-food store? At a small, corner deli? At a bakery, a butcher shop, a fruit-and-vegetable stand, or some other specialty store? At a regional grocery chain? At a national-chain supermarket? At a discount warehouse or Big-Box superstore? Through online delivery? At a take-out restaurant? Did you grow it at home?

Do you have allergies? Are you vegetarian or vegan? Are you trying to lose weight? Are you on a special diet for medical reasons? Do you follow religious dietary laws? What culturally traditional foods did you eat growing up?
What tastes good? 

Adapted from The Overloaded Liberal: Shopping, Investing, Parenting, and Other Daily Dilemmas in an Age of Political Activism by Fran Hawthorne.  Copyright (c) 2010.  Reprinted with permission by Beacon Press.