How Faith Connects to Food
By jennifer dykes henson
November 14, 2011
What did you have for dinner last night? How about breakfast this morning? Lunch last Friday?
If you’re like the overwhelming majority of Americans, every meal you eat includes a hefty helping of sizzling, savory meat. And why not? Meat tastes great—and provides us with all-important protein, right? Well, that’s what most of us have always believed, anyway.
Yet when it comes to what’s on our plates, how it got there and how it affects us, we are in an unfortunate position; we don’t know what we don’t know.
Just two years ago, I didn’t know what I didn’t know either. I was going about my business, happily eating the foods I was raised on—chicken breasts, turkey sandwiches, hamburgers and steaks. I had no problem partaking in the meat-filled, all-American diet. But then my eyes were opened to the reality of meat consumption as it related both to my body and to the world around me, something shifted and I became one of the twenty- and thirty-somethings who are trending toward vegetarianism at an astounding rate.
There’s an inarguable proverb that says, “The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom” (Proverbs 4:7). The problem is we don’t necessarily want wisdom regarding our food choices because, whether deep-fried or lightly broiled, our ignorance tastes finger-licking good. But for the sake of our own health, and for the sake of the animals and the planet we’ve been entrusted with, it’s time we started seeing our eating choices through the lens of reality rather than social conditioning. In other words, it’s time to get wisdom.
The majority of young adults who are now opting for a vegetarian lifestyle point to four reasons for making the leap: health, animal welfare, environmental issues and world hunger.
Here’s what’s interesting: While these four issues are all things that those of us who are Christ-followers are called to be concerned with, our interest in how we nourish ourselves and how our choices nurture the world pale in comparison to many of our non-Christian counterparts.
Why is it that some vocal sectors of the unbelieving culture around us are acutely interested in the personal and global impact of their eating choices, while those of us who are specifically called to compassion, understanding, love and excellence saunter up to the burger bar without a second thought?
While we like to believe that our meat comes from healthy animals raised on Norman Rockwell-certified farms, that’s not the case. The evolution to factory farming over the last half century has radically changed the way we eat meat, in terms of both quantity and quality. Small, well-run farms have been virtually eliminated by factory farms that mass-produce animals as if they were widgets being prepared for shipment. Let’s take a look at a few implications of factory farming, as they relate to each of the four categories mentioned above.
Health—Doctors who are serious about disease reduction recommend that we eat under half a pound of meat per week. The average American takes that down in a day. Consuming animal protein (read: saturated fat) at the current rate has sent obesity, cancer rates and heart disease through the roof over the last 50 years.
Not to mention, factory farmed meat—which is 97 percent of the meat currently available in the United States—is always served with a complimentary chemical cocktail. The level of super antibiotics, modified hormones and other synthetic substances that make it into the flesh we find so tasty leads to its own host of health issues.
Animal Welfare—Whether devoted animal lovers or not, we can all agree that God’s creation deserves to be treated with a modicum of respect. We have been given dominion over the animals that populate the earth. With that dominion comes responsibility. The way we engineer (yes, engineer) and slaughter animals today flies in the face of any definition of thoughtful stewardship. The details, which I can’t even begin to scratch the surface of here, would turn any stomach. As Marc Bittman of The New York Times pointed out in a recent TED talk, “There’s no way to treat animals humanely when you are killing 10 billion of them every year.”
Environmental Issues—Next time you walk into your local supermarket to pick up a pound of ground beef, take a look at how much more is sitting in those cooled, well-lit containers. Think about the beef in the back of the store, waiting to be put on Styrofoam, wrapped in Cellophane and displayed for the rush of dinner shoppers. Combine that image with the amount of beef in the supermarket down the street, then in every supermarket in your town. Multiply that by every city and town in your state and every state in our great union.
Now, imagine the elaborate back-end process necessary for breeding, slaughtering and distributing those cows—not to mention, their chicken, turkey, pig and lamb cohorts. The environmental ramifications are staggering, and we haven’t even brought restaurants and fast food chains into the visualization.
To put it lightly, our meat habit wreaks havoc on the world we live in. Experts contend that if everyone in the U.S. skipped meat just one day per week, the benefit would be comparable to taking 7.6 million cars off the road.
World Hunger—While Americans grow increasingly obese, approximately 1 billion people around the world go hungry. How are these two realities connected? Close to half of the corn and grain grown on the planet is used to feed livestock. Each farmed animal must consume many pounds of it to produce just one pound of meat—an extremely inefficient use of resources. If we spared the middleman and distributed those corn and grain crops directly to the poor and needy, world hunger would be a thing of the past.
Many adamant meat eaters look to Jesus for justification. They argue that Jesus ate meat, so meat eating must be OK. Jesus also wore a long linen robe with a sash and simple sandals. Is that going to be your outfit of choice this season? Don’t get me wrong—Jesus should be our example in all things, but we have to be wary of using Him as an easy excuse or in an attempt to rationalize what we want to do.
In Jesus’ day, small, family farms were obviously the norm, and there was no option outside of local. Synthetic hormones hadn’t been invented. People who ate meat ate it in extremely small quantities (usually just for special occasions) that came from healthy, well-fed, well-cared-for animals. Meat eating today is a different story altogether. The apropos question to ask is, “Would Jesus eat meat if He were walking the earth now?” Arguably, He would not.
When you don’t know what you don’t know, it’s easy to do things the way you’ve always done them. But then wisdom steps in and something has to change. As followers of Christ, we are called to be mindful of how we treat the bodies we’ve been given and how we engage in the world around us. We don’t have the luxury of turning a blind eye to suffering—whether that of our nation’s health, starving children or tortured animals—while we live to please our stomachs.
Change is not always easy, but small steps can make a big difference. Continue seeking out truth regarding your food choices and begin making small adjustments where you can. Perhaps you stop eating meat one day a week. Maybe you decide to find and support the few remaining family farms. Whatever you do, get wisdom, live mindfully and choose to respect the life and the planet you’ve been given.
Jennifer Dykes Henson is a freelance writer based in New York City. She is the co-author of The Generosity Ladder (Baker 2010), Revolve: A New Way to See Worship (Baker 2011) and numerous other titles for church leaders.