“I had to decide whether to be good or bad this morning!” My four-year-old son recently shared this bit of self-realization with our congregation during a children’s sermon. Our pastor was talking about the importance of decisions and how some are more important than others. While reviewing what families do when they start each day, she said “I don’t think God worries about toast or cereal.” It was a good message, tuned just right to the rambunctious horde, as evident by my son’s comprehension. But it occurred to me that most of our moral lives are comprised of numerous small decisions, which add up to something significant.
The topic of food offers a useful case for considering the ultimate morality of our daily decisions, the responsibility we bear for them, relative to those of powerful actors who determine most of the recipes, ingredients, menus, prices and other aspects of what is available for us to consume.
First, a comment about morality in general. You wouldn’t know it from the headlines produced by major newspapers, which have a stake in conflict and drama, but surveys repeatedly document the many shades of gray recognized by Americans. Neither the universal absolutism portrayed in The Scarlet Letter nor the radical individualism of Ayn Rand have much to do with how most of us think about the world. For many, the perceived shades of gray reflect appreciation of complexity, not indifference. We need order and crave meaning, but circumstances change, and none of us is perfect. So, we try to live in a way that is “normal” and honors the best lessons we’ve learned from our loved ones. Keeping up with the Joneses is about having the right stuff – both materially and morally.
There is also the issue of power, which brings us back to food. Corporate marketing is now integrated throughout our lives via television, direct mail, billboards, the internet, and the minds of our children, who have been taught to nag grown-ups to buy certain products. So, there are the Joneses, who live next door, work in the next office, shop in the next aisle, or worship in the next pew. And there are the “Joneses,” who advertisers have convinced us have already purchased the new product, which we need to eat as well if we want to fit in, get fit, or get ahead.
Each of us bears some moral responsibility for the choices we make. That is an enduring lesson that many on the left currently don’t spend much energy highlighting. However, the issue of power complicates most choices, a fact about which many on the right are mute.
Toast or cereal? It’s actually a pretty complicated question. Does it have gluten from genetically modified wheat? High fructose corn syrup? Is it local? How much fossil fuel was used in its production? Did it come from a conflict zone in the Middleast? How much labor was used in production? Were the workers treated fairly? Consuming wisely is increasingly no simple matter. Issues of health, nutrition, sustainability, labor, taste, availability, affordability, and religious observance together constitute a kind of culinary maze. The well-known gap between the purported health benefits of most breakfast bars, cereals, crackers, frozen dinners, and other quick meals versus the actual ingredients is old hat. Most (but not all) people know that truth in advertising is about as reliable as truth in pro-wrestling, or political rhetoric.
There is increasingly good reason to take any declaration about healthy ingredients with a grain of salt. (The absence of such claims, as on a head of broccoli or fresh fish, is a new shibboleth.) For example, Coffee Mate, the oxymoronic “non-dairy creamer,” brags of “all-natural no artificial ingredients” and offers this gem in advertisements for its latest version, Natural Bliss: “Who knew being natural could be so delicious?” Seriously? Who knew? Only every member of every species on the planet with the possible exception of a few humans.
Specific claims of advertisers are sometimes contested. When General Mills declared that Cheerios could “lower your cholesterol 4% in 6 weeks,” the Food and Drug Administration intervened and made them modify the language (i.e., “As part of a heart healthy diet, the soluble fiber in Cheerios can help reduce your cholesterol”). Is Coca-Cola, Snapple, or high fructose corn syrup “all natural”? All?! Their producers have tried to make us think so. General efforts to present food as healthy, natural, “smart,” or in some other way good for us go largely uninterrogated.
Our food system is in many ways a modern wonder. The volume, variety and affordability are unprecedented. But the problems are increasingly alarming. Obesity, eating disorders, diabetes, heart disease, allergies, addiction, and other illnesses linked to diet all suggest something is amiss. Plus, the costs of our poor health exacerbate other problems at which we could be directing our economic and human resources. In this case, much of the trouble is avoidable. The simple truth of what is healthy for us – “eat food, not too much, mostly plants” Michael Pollan urges – has been obscured by a convoluted system full of misinformation and vested interests other than consumers.’
The menu, writ large, is a calamity: the marketing of products laden with sugar and fat (e.g., “multi-grain” cereals, “fruit” punch, “fruit” roll ups) with the bogus claims of healthy qualities, the careful presentation of old goods to enhance the appearance of freshness (e.g., look closely at the produce in Wall Mart), the calculated manipulation of packaging to encourage overuse (e.g., 32 oz. soda anyone?), the ruthless efforts to squash regulation, transparency or any other kind of consumer protections (e.g., the beef producers’ beef with Opra), the political leveraging to favor certain crops (e.g., corn), genetic modification and subsequent production of different species of plants (e.g., wheat) and animals (e.g., cows) without real understanding of implications for consumers or the environment, not to mention the varied ways poor people are marginalized in food deserts, as consumers, or as employees.
I don’t know whether God cares about what we eat for breakfast. But in light of the mess our food system has become, due both to our own personal choices and especially those of powerful interests, these are not morally neutral questions. Each of us has many choices everyday about whether to be good or bad, as my son noted during that children’s sermon. One good choice we can each make is to take up this challenge regarding food, read more, talk about it with our family and friends, communicate to our leaders the importance of sound policy, and ponder carefully what we put in our shopping carts and mouths.
Kelly D. Brownell and Katherine Battle Horgen. 2004. Food Fight: The Inside Story of the Food Industry, America’s Obesity Crisis, and What We Can Do About It. New York: Contemporary Books.
Oran B. Hesterman. 2011. Fair Food: Growing a Healthy, Sustainable Food System for All. New York: Public Affairs.
Bill McKibben. 2008. Deep Economy: the Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future. New York: St. Martin’s.
Tracie McMillan. 2012. The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Walmart, Applebee’s, Farm Fields and the Dinner Table. New York: Scribner.
Marion Nestle.2008. Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health. LA: University of California Press.
Raj Patel. 2008. Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System. Brooklyn, NY: Melville House.