Food choices affect others, environment

Aug. 10, 2013 @ 08:51 AM

A new group of Johnson Interns will arrive this week to spend a year of service in our area.  They will live together in a monastic model of community life that will require some adjustments, especially around food. 

These eight interns have a shared food budget that is adequate, but requires planning.  The tenets of the program include social justice and well-being, so I have been gathering some facts on food to help them consider how our choices impact other people as well as the environment. 

We possess more power than we realize in the choices we make every day.  Retailers pay billions to attract and track our food dollars.  Every purchase is a “vote” on what kind of world we want to live in.  I challenge us to make eating decisions from a place of knowledge. 

Most resources list three areas of concern around food choices:

•         The health of the earth

•         The health of our bodies, and

•         The access others have to food

I’d add a fourth category -- the “cruelty” factor.  Factory farming and food processing systems inflict untold suffering on humans and animals.

THE EARTH:  When you lift a bite of food to your face today, consider that it likely traveled at least 1,500 miles to your plate.  That’s the average in this nation.  When we buy from our neighbors, we vote for our local economy. 

Organic/local farming builds and replenishes soils while conventional farming depletes them.  And yes, we can feed our burgeoning population organically (some studies show it is the only way possible).

Seventy percent of all antibiotic use and 18 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions result from conventional meat production, and it takes 1,500 gallons of water to produce just one pound of meat that way.  Nearly 3/4 of all arable land is involved in meat production, which is needlessly subsidized by our government. 

Processed foods come in harmful plastics and bulky boxes that go right into the waste stream.  It takes 1.5 million barrels of oil a year to create water bottles for the United States alone.

Want some good news?  A family of four going without meat and cheese just one day a week (for a year) creates the equivalent of not driving their car for four months.  If everyone in the country did that it would be like taking 7.6 million cars off the road. 

OUR BODIES:   The pluses and minuses of meat-eating is hotly debated, but the fact is that Americans eat 60 percent more meat than our European neighbors, and indisputable studies show that heavy meat consumption makes us 20 percent more likely to die of cancer and 27 percent more likely to die of heart disease.  Conventionally produced meat is often heavily contaminated with fecal matter.

Beyond meat, though, heavy pesticide and antibiotic use in all conventional farming is harming us in ways we don’t fully comprehend.  Superbugs are emerging that defy our most radical antibiotics, and the host of strange diseases, allergies and sensitivities that affect us are being tied to pollutants.  Genetically modified foods are already proving to be problematic.

Likewise, we’re learning that “real” food has advantages that can’t be duplicated in laboratories or factories.   Food processing depletes nutrients and adds artificial versions back in.  Our bodies know the difference.  The good news is that with whole foods, our bodies can repair themselves fairly rapidly. 

ACCESS:  We know that systems that abuse the earth abuse people as well.  The corporations that control our access to food are merging.  They rely heavily on cheap labor and create inhumane conditions for workers worldwide.  Government subsidies make junk food cheaper than healthy food, and our appetites in the United States create untold hardships when developing nations feed us instead of their own people.  The good news is that local food systems can be more equitable and humane. 

We can learn more from writers like Bill McKibben and Barry Estabrook, and from websites like and movies such as “Dirt.” Resources are abundant, but can overwhelm.  But we know that small changes can reap huge benefits, so plunge in.

A CHH columnist since 1998, Susan Gladin is a freelance writer, United Methodist minister and curriculum coordinator at the Johnson Intern Program in Chapel Hill. You may e-mail her at, or write c/o The Chapel Hill Herald, 2828 Pickett Road, Durham, NC 27705.