Ethical Eating...Out

One of the important things that happens at the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly is selection of a Study/Action Issue. We select just one Study/Action Issue every two years. Three -- or sometimes four -- years after selecting a Study/Action Issue, the delegates at General Assembly decide whether to adopt a Statement of Conscience about that issue. We choose our Study/Action Issues for four-year periods, so we are always in the first two years of one issue and in the second two years of the previously selected issue.

I've been to 13 General Assemblies over the last 16 years. I was at General Assembly 2008, in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. Being an even-numbered year, the delegates debated, deliberated and chose a Study/Action Issue. In 2008, the two issues up for consideration were nuclear disarmament and ethical eating. Both are important, but our process calls for a focus on only one new issue every two years. Each issue was represented by a series of worthy advocates who made their case to the delegates. When the vote came, a significant majority supported making “Ethical Eating” the study/action issue for 2008-2012.

Across the land, our congregations were enjoined to investigate the various questions related to eating ethically. Our denominational headquarters produced resources and study guides.

I was also at General Assembly 2011 in Charlotte, North Carolina. One product of our denomination-wide reflection in the the intervening three years had been the emergence of a draft statement of conscience. In Charlotte, further amendments were proposed and debated, some of them incorporated, some not, and a final Statement of Conscience for Unitarian Universalists was adopted.

Our Statement of Conscience on Ethical Eating is about 15-hundred words – 3 or 4 pages. The Statement begins:
“Aware of our interdependence, we acknowledge that eating ethically requires us to be mindful of the miracle of life we share with all beings. With gratitude for the food we have received, we strive to choose foods that minimize harm and are protective of the environment, consumers, farmers, and all those involved in food production and distribution.... As Unitarian Universalists, we are called to address our relationship with food.”
The statement talked about fair treatment of food and farm workers, raised concerns about humane treatment of animals and supporting a marketplace of healthier foods and foods produced with less environmental damage. (See the full statement: CLICK HERE.)

It didn’t say anything about restaurants, though.

There has been a shift, among Unitarian Universalists and in general culture. More and more of us are at least thinking about such subjects as where food is produced, how it is cooked, and how the animals were treated.
  • The word “locavore” – someone committed to eating locally grown food – was first coined less than 10 years ago.
  • Vegetarianism has increased from just 1 percent of US citizens in 1971 to 13 percent as of 2013. Chances are pretty good that either you are already vegetarian, or you’ve found yourself considering it more seriously in recent years.
  • Organic food sales in the US from 2004 to 2012 increased by two and a half times from $11 billion to $27 billion.
  • While the plight of migrant farm workers still remains both tragic and largely hidden, it has been a slowly growing concern.
We are becoming a nation increasingly thoughtful about the ethics and impact of what and how we eat.

Thinking about the working conditions of the waitstaff, cooks, bussers and dishwashers in our restaurants has been slower than the other food issues to make it onto the radar of our ethical awareness. That, too, is beginning to change, as the UU Association selected Saru Jayarman’s book, Behind the Kitchen Door as this year’s Common Read for Unitarian Universalists.

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This is part 1 of 4 of "Behind the Kitchen Door"
Next: Part 2: "Where American Culture Happens"

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