Eat Your Heart Out: The Morality of our Meals


With the end of Lent, a lot of people are going to be able to eat meat throughout the week again. Historically, Lenten fasting has been associated with many different forms of abstinence, including the Black Fast — fasting throughout the day, a partial fast restricting “rich” foods or abstinence from meat and animal products on a timeframe ranging from all of Lent to only Fridays to only Good Friday itself. Similarly, Passover recently ended on April 23, and Ramadan is ongoing until May. All three of these holy traditions share a policing of their adherents’ diets. Though not all of us on the Editorial Board are currently participating in one of these traditions, we live with a form of dietary restriction in our lives, whether that be for moral, religious or personal reasons. We still find it an appropriate time to reflect on what significance the way we choose to eat holds over our lives.

Meat is a good place to start. Five percent of adults in the United States consider themselves to be vegetarians. There are few statistics on the “why” of vegetarianism in the United States, but it is correlated with identifying one’s political affiliation as “liberal.” Now, correlation does not equal causation, and there is nothing about vegetarianism as a lifestyle that necessitates a liberal political stance. However, outside of religious and health concerns, the most common reasonings for vegetarianism are ethical beliefs regarding animal rights and worries about the environmental effect of meat production. Those who identify as Democrats or politically liberal are more likely to be concerned about climate change and the environment, and correspondingly more likely to place more stock in human actions in causing an effect on the environment — attempting to limit their food waste and consumption of meat accordingly. As for animal rights and the nature of the meat industry, it has been well-known since Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel “The Jungle” that the meatpacking industry is abjectly harmful to both animals and the human labor required to keep it running. Despite the food safety laws enacted by the United States government following public outrage inspired by Sinclair’s novel, further publications such as “Fast Food Nation” (2001), “Farmageddon” (2014) and the wildly popular documentary “Food, Inc.” (2008). These pieces revealed that the conditions that the animals we eat live under would turn most of our stomachs if we had to see it during our mealtimes. Further these industries care little for the humans affected by them, whether that be the underpaid and overworked employees at risk of losing limbs due to an overly-fast-moving conveyor belt, the numerous health problems suffered by consumers who are being marketed as much meat as possible, as quickly as possible, standards be damned, or everyone that has to deal with the environmental effects of farming on such a massive scale.

We all know what goes into bringing a McDonald’s burger or an Urban Kitchen chicken tender into our hands, but unless we’re reminded in the moment that we’re eating, it can be hard to remember the intense processes that turn an animal into a meal. Nearly every parent has a story of their child suddenly realizing that the chicken in their nuggets and the chicken at the petting zoo are one and the same. It would seem that this meat-blindness doesn’t necessarily go away with age. Detachment from where our food really comes from is a serious problem. In many ways, it demonstrates a lack of respect for the animals we eat — a sort of culinary objectification. Chicken nuggets seem to be a particularly egregious example. That’s not chicken. It seems designed to make you forget that what you are eating was once alive. Honestly, it may be controversial, but it may be time to bring offal into the spotlight, if only to remind the world of what meat really is. Despite what’s written above, not all of us on the Editorial Board are vegetarian. In fact, we’re pretty evenly divided on our stances on eating meat. However, you don’t need to be a vegetarian to be critical of the industries that create our food. Not just the meat industry, either. Our moral choices regarding food are not limited to choosing vegetarianism and veganism, and accordingly, choosing to abstain from animal products does not indicate a moral pattern of consumption. The detachment regarding the origin of our food goes further than dissociating “beef” from “cow” — COVID-19 and the destabilizing situation in Europe has demonstrated how many of us take for granted that the kind of food we want will just show up on our shelves, whenever we want it. 

That’s becoming increasingly untrue. The supply chain we rely on to bring us the incredible variety of foodstuffs available in the supermarket is incredibly delicate, as has been well-demonstrated this year. Agricultural workers get sick at increasing rates, or warehouses can’t hire enough people to move stock, and suddenly your favorite brand of ramen just isn’t showing up on the grocery store shelves for the foreseeable future. Considering how much of what we eat is grown outside of the country, the amount of hands (and transport, and fuel, and pollution) it takes to get a tomato or bowl of quinoa into our stomachs is truly mind-boggling. That’s not even getting into the wages paid to those that labor to put staples like cocoa or coffee in our pantries — wages so low that in many cases they’re produced with nothing short of slave labor.

It’s time to acknowledge that if we’re to examine our relentless and reckless patterns of consumption, we must turn our eyes to our most primary consumables: our diet. Climate change, the state of the supply chain and increasing ethical concerns regarding what it takes to bring food to our table necessitate that we take a long look at what’s really vital in our lives, and perhaps take steps to minimize our edible impact. We don’t expect everyone to stop eating meat or only buy local vegetables, but it doesn’t have to be all-or-nothing. 

Food is such a central and constant part of our lives that even relatively small considerations or changes can have a huge impact. Restricting certain types or amounts of food, ethical slaughter, focus on the cleanliness of food — these are all commonly present in religions and cultures across the world, for one very simple reason. Food is important. It has to be. So many food rules that may seem nonsensical or arbitrary to those of us living with modern conveniences were engineered around natural harvest seasons or lean periods, and served to ensure the health and continued nourishment of those that followed them. In separating our food from our community, we’ve turned food into a cheap commodity, but food is everything. Food is life. Maybe it’s time we start treating it that way.