The Ethics of Eating: We in North America Probably Eat Better Than Any People in History. Our Stomachs Are Full, but We Are Still Hungry-And a Little Scared. (Part 1 Food: An overview)(Cover Story)

By Heffern, Rich | National Catholic Reporter, May 24, 2002 | Go to article overview

The Ethics of Eating: We in North America Probably Eat Better Than Any People in History. Our Stomachs Are Full, but We Are Still Hungry-And a Little Scared. (Part 1 Food: An overview)(Cover Story)


Heffern, Rich, National Catholic Reporter


A walk through the local supermarket means navigating past the spectacle of the produce department. The Garden of Eden probably didn't look as good.

There all the radishes are lined up with their ends pointing out, the spinach leaves sparkle with fresh water droplets. Every variety from avocados to melons, rhubarb to zucchini gleams in the fluorescent light, free of blemish. Tall stacks of tomatoes and bins of crisp lettuce are available in the darkest days of winter. Kiwi fruits from southern latitudes near Antarctica show up in Muskogee, Okla., and Duluth, Minn. Just beyond the produce is the meat counter, stocked with every cut and variety of fish, fowl and beef. Prices are reasonable. Supermarkets are clean, well stocked and some of them are open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

This dazzling, mouth-watering scene in today's supermarkets is the result of practices, policies and habits that evolved over two or three generations. Food was once produced almost entirely on small family farms and brought into town and city one small truck at a time to packinghouses and canneries, or markets and mom-and-pop stores in every neighborhood. The connections between farmer and consumer were fairly direct, with little processing between harvesting and eating.

Now it's different. There is much more variety in the offerings. It's more convenient, freeing us for quality time. Once common food deficiency diseases, like pellagra and rickets, are rare now. Many drudgery-filled jobs have been eliminated. We in North America probably eat better, with more variety, thrice-daily with snacks in between, than any people at any time in history.

Yet there are concerns. Our stomachs are full, but paradoxically we are still hungry--and a little scared.

The hunger is for the aesthetic value of real food, the satisfaction of eating together, the assurance that what we're putting into our mouths is both life-sustaining and safe. Our fears are about the hidden costs of "cheap" food, one of which is a widespread and continuing loss of small family farms in the United States.

This ongoing crisis for family farms, wrote Bishop Raymond Burke of LaCrosse, Wis., "is quickly leading to the last days of a system of farming that has contributed greatly to the building of our nation's cultural, economic, social and environmental fabric. The loss of these farms would be a tremendous loss for us as a nation and a people."

And we yearn for those missing spiritual connections our table once provided us almost automatically, as we prayed together over our plates, then talked over the day ahead or behind as our stomachs filled. The Catholic bishops of the United States have probably written as much about our food system in their pastoral letters as they have any other subject. "Food, its production and consumption are at the very heart of the Catholic faith," said Holy Cross Br. Dave Andrews, executive director of the National Catholic Rural Life Conference. "And spirituality will play a central role in digging us out of the mess we've made of our food system."

Ben Kjelshus, national food activist and cofounder of the Midwest-based Food Circles Networking Project, told NCR, "Since we all depend on food to live, its production and delivery system lives at the very heart of our health, our economy and our local community. Today many feel that our food system is environmentally and socially destructive, unsustainable, inhumane and unjust.

"Conventional agriculture has become dependent on petrochemicals and a reliance on processes," said Kjelshus, that are "destroying the environment in ways almost too numerous to count: soil erosion, poisonous runoff in our streams and groundwater, the creation of pesticide-resistant insects, and the list goes on and on."

The food system has become highly centralized as well, according to Kjelshus. Every aspect of it is now dominated by a small handful of corporations that control both production and retailing, and keep prices paid for raw commodities low. …

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The Ethics of Eating: We in North America Probably Eat Better Than Any People in History. Our Stomachs Are Full, but We Are Still Hungry-And a Little Scared. (Part 1 Food: An overview)(Cover Story)
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