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You are what you eat … and then some

Each time you put food into your mouth, take a second to pause and put your fork down.

Think before you eat, advised Brother David Andrews, a longtime advocate for sustainable food production. Always ask questions, he said: Where did this meal come from? Who produced it? Did that person receive a fair wage?

Eating isn’t just about satisfying hunger, he emphasized; it’s a moral act.

“It’s about being reflective,” Andrews said. “There’s nothing stronger than a consumer. Unfortunately, a lot of eaters don’t understand the power they have in their knives, forks and spoons.”

Andrews, the former director of the National Catholic Rural Life Conference, will be in Spokane next week to talk about the ethics of eating.

What we put into our mouths not only affects our own minds and bodies, he said; it also has consequences for the environment and communities both locally and throughout the world.

“We live in the post-industrial era, during the time of peak oil and climate change, when our lifestyles and practices require change,” Andrews said during a phone interview from Chicago, where he teaches at Catholic Theological Union. “This isn’t supposed to be a guilt trip. We’re not trying to be the food police. But we are trying to get people to think and take notice. … The more people we can engage in looking at the food system, the healthier our society.”

Throughout most of his life and especially during the last three decades, Andrews has contemplated the role of consumers and eaters in agriculture and food production. His awareness took shape in his youth, growing up in Myricks, a tiny town in rural southeastern Massachusetts. Later, as a 17-year-old training to become a brother in the Congregation of Holy Cross, Andrews was assigned to work on a farm, where he planted vegetables, slaughtered cattle, picked fruit and performed other chores. In this spiritual and bucolic setting, he couldn’t help but ponder the ethical ramifications of food consumption. His views also were shaped by his later experiences studying social and political theology at Boston College and managing a retreat center that included a 450-acre farm.

Andrews soon found himself organizing discussions and conferences on sustainability, humane treatment of animals and organic farming – practices known in the ‘70s as “alternative agriculture.”

These days, Americans are paying more attention to these issues, he said, citing the growing demand for locally-grown and organic produce, the rise of the “Slow Food” movement to combat fast food, and the popularity of books such as Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.” In recent years, as a response to globalization, the food movement has converged with fair trade, the environment and social justice, he said.

“People are wondering about the planet and its health and our role in all that with climate change,” Andrews said. “They’re also thinking about their own health.”

His goal is to take advantage of the momentum surrounding sustainability issues. “We live in what has been called the Ecozoic Era, the period of Quantum Agriculture, a period linking notions of deep ecology with deep economy,” Andrews said. “My plan is to share these insights to the community so people can abide more deeply with a new way of life that is unfolding. It links farmers and consumers, environmentalists and economists, the global and the local and it links Catholic social teaching with the world’s religious and moral wisdom.”

Institutions have to take the lead, he said, noting recent examples such as Smithfield, the largest pork processor in the world, and its decision in January to phase out the use of gestation crates, a metal enclosure to confine pregnant sows. Another major pork producer, Cargill, followed suit by halting the use of gestation crates in 50 percent of its pig factory farms.

Schools also have to take initiative, he said, especially at the elementary level. Young children who are offered healthy foods are more likely to choose a healthy diet and lifestyle later in life than those who are exposed only to fast food, especially if the kids come from poor families, he said.

Individuals have their part as well, Andrews said. While shopping at the grocery store, take time to examine the products and read the labels, he advised. Talk to people stocking shelves or the checkers at the register about the food, the farms and farmworkers who grew and gathered them. Ask them if these people were paid a fair price for their work, Andrews said.

“Change can happen if people ask for it,” he said.

Virginia de Leon can be reached at (509) 459-5312 or virginiad@spokesman.com.



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