Monday, June 27, 2011

The Ethical Eating Project - Overview

First some background: at the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly, we passed a Statement of Conscience on Ethical Eating. I didn't like it. Here is the draft closest to what we passed, though a few mostly superficial amendments were adopted from the floor. Kinsi had a nice discussion of the class issues in the first draft. There were some changes made to that draft (reflected in the draft at the first link) to at least tone down the overall elitist feel of the thing. To my reading, it still doesn't reflect a real understanding of how difficult this stuff actually is if you aren't upper middle class. Further, it was clear from the overall tone of the debate on the floor that people just didn't get what a privileged position we were speaking from.

In response, the (total cutie) Rev. Nate Walker issued the following challenge:

(Summary: Just as an experiment: try to live on the amount of money that folks on food stamps have to live on.)

What the Rev. Walker didn't do was actually put the two ideas together. What if someone on food stamps actually tried to live by our statement of conscience?

Now, "living by the statement of conscience" is something of a misnomer in that the statement of conscience itself doesn't list any real edicts, though goodness knows the vegetarians gave adding them a shot.

So, I've reviewed the latest draft of the statement I could find, and made the following food policies for myself that I plan to stick with for the next couple of weeks:

1. Eat meat (or chicken or fish) at most once a day
2. Only buy animal products that certify the animals have been well-treated.*
3. Buy Organic whenever possible**
4. Buy Local whenever possible.
5. Buy Fair trade whenever possible.
6. Eating Communally (Ok, I'm not even sure what this means so I'm honestly not doing it.)
7. Eat in quantities that do not lead to obesity.

So that's half of my project. Virginia's food stamp guidelines are relatively straightforward in forming the other half of my project:

Items that can be purchased with SNAP include:

Food or food products meant to be eaten by people
Vegetable seeds and food producing plants, roots, and trees for family consumption
Baby formula, diabetic, and diet foods
Edible items used in preparing or preserving food such as spices and herbs,
pectin, and shortening
Water and ice labeled for human consumption
Snack foods
Meals delivered to elderly or disabled SNAP recipients if the organization providing the meal is authorized to accept EBT cards

Items that cannot be purchased with benefits include:

Prepared hot foods in grocery stores
Any prepared food (hot or cold) sold and meant to be eaten at the store
Alcoholic beverages and tobacco
Cleaning products, paper products, toiletries, and cooking utensils
Pet foods
Items for food preservation such as canning jars and lids, freezer containers, or food wrapping paper
Medicines, vitamins or minerals***
Items for gardening such as fertilizer and peat moss

I will add that I'm going to try to not eat out and if I do, the cost of whatever I order will come out of my budget. I realize food stamps can't be used to eat out at all, but I'm not completely screwing my social life just for this experiment. Also, if I find that this stuff is seriously getting in the way of studying for the bar, I will quit.

So there we go. TheCSO doesn't have to do this and the number of business lunches he eats would make it impractical, so I'm doing this by myself. Thus my budget is the amount of food stamps given to a single person: $200 per month or $100 for the two weeks I'm hoping to stick to this.

I haven't figured out what I will do if I go over to a friend's for dinner, money-wise or diet-wise.

I've eaten only ethical food today and have kept track of what I've spent on it and I will post an update tonight with how my first day went.

Cheap recipes very welcome.

FWIW, I have read the Rev. Naomi King's excellent fleshing out of the food stamp challenge. But I'm not living by it. Her points are well taken, though. My suburban self will have lots of choices that people who live in economically disadvantaged areas don't have. I will have in the back of my head that if I say to my husband "Screw this, let's go get some steaks," he will agree. Hell, I will have the car for the trips to Whole Foods and Trader Joe's this will require.

So whatever I do and however much I complain, keep in mind that I'm still doing a really privileged version of this.

Again, cheap recipes welcome.


*I'm granting myself a de minimis exception here. That's lawyer for "If the energy bar has a thin layer of milk chocolate and I have no way of knowing how the cow that made the tiny amount of milk that is in the small amount of milk chocolate was treated, I'm granting myself a pass on worrying about it."

** 3, 4, and to a lesser degree 5 conflict a lot. (My whole foods has organic tomatoes and local tomatoes, but none that are both. A purist would likely not buy tomatoes at all, but even the statement doesn't demand purism, so I just picked one.)

*** I am continuing to take medication and vitamins and I'm not taking the cost of them out of my budget.

(ADDED: Sara, I hit the wrong button and deleted your comment by accident. Your encouragement is appreciated, I'm just an idiot.)


kimc said...

You go, girl!
Best of luck.

mattkinsi said...

Really? The comment about poor people choosing to eat spam because they didn't know any better came off elitist?

L said...

We eat pretty cheaply, especially now that we live in a place where food is really expensive. We try to only eat meat about once a week. I make a lot of things ahead of time and we eat them later in the week as well.

For cheap but tasty recipes, I suggest rice and beans. Seriously, black beans and rice (cuban) or red beans and rice (cajun) are favorites in our house. They go a long way, have lots of protein, and if you put a veggie on the side, they aren't too unhealthy.

As for eating at your friends house, I wouldn't worry about it busting your diet. People on food stamps eat at their friends' places too.

Lizard Eater said...

Awesome idea. You rock.

Steve Caldwell said...

I wouldn't recommend this for your experiment, but it would be interesting to try and do the shopping for it in lower income neighborhoods.

Some lower-income neighborhoods with a greater percentage of food stamps recipients are "food deserts" where the food purchasing choices are limited.

Getting out of a "food desert" neighborhood where one can find organic, locally grown, fair trade, etc will involve increased transportation costs by driving or using mass transit.

Good luck.

Chalicechick said...

The Rev. King talks about that in the post I linked to. I just don't have time to go to a food desert to shop, though if I'd thought of this, say, a year ago it might have been a possibility as I was going to school on Capitol Hill, which is closer to some of the poorer parts of DC than you'd think.

But honestly, it is pretty difficult to "eat ethically" in exactly the neighborhood where it should be easiest. I don't think I need to go to a food desert to know it would be pretty much impossible there.


Cubit said...

I admire your efforts. Good luck with this. I will not tempt you with any OLEs during this period. I suppose if you grew a garden, much of the local/organic could have been taken care of, however, not useful for your two-week experiment.

Chalicechick said...

Hey, if there's a chance for the lot of us to get together in the next two weeks, don't hold off on my account. I can get a side salad.


Lisa M. Orange said...

I'm very curious to see how this works out. I'm rooting for you!

Anonymous said...

I seem to remember signs for a farmers market near your house. This is most likely the best way to find local and organic.

Of course that will have to wait. Most farmers don't take food stamps.

RevNaomi said...

Nice project! I'm looking forward to your reflections.

No, no one should have to take it on. I gave the details - & many Unitarian Universalists who live them already without choice & who live in close community with those who live w/out choice - knew them. As you rightly observed, that post is oriented toward people who may be encountering the obstacles created by health & disability, economic striation, and the real architecture of class in the United States for the first time in considering their assumptions and relative privilege.

You're also being very clear that privilege doesn't have to be absolute or the highest level to still exist in relative ways. I admire your project & the integrity you're inviting folks into by practicing it!

Steven Rowe said...

Good going with this CC. I don't think many UU folks could do it for long (and I say this as someone who worked in the grocery biz - and worked with folks on food stamps).
Thinking back to your time in the Carolinas, you know that beans, rice, grits, and local greens - collards, turnips, etc - are staples of cheap eating. The stuff you can't have (white bread, jiffy mix, Vienna sausages, are also fairly cheap).
Remember to boycott the supermarkets that are owned by SuperValu Inc, etc - this includes the favorite of the southern poor - Save-a-lot. Shoppers Food in DC area is also on the banned list. IGA is only supplied by SuperValu, so still ok ( I guess). good luck

Jess said...

Other thoughts: Gleaning at farmers markets. Many farmers markets take EBT and their prices are comparable and often better than Whole Foods. Go later in the market and often, farmers will give a little extra of goods that won't last. So you can get organic local and cheap tomatoes. A lot of them, that you can then blanch and freeze or preserve. Suddenly instead of $2.00 for cans of organic tomatoes, you get much more, but it cost you in time. A lot of time! You just have to change a lot of habits (which might in turn get in the way of studying for the bar, which may help explain why poor people find it hard to stop being poor). (I worked at a farmers market for 4 years. There is a LOT of great local organic food available in this region.)

Eve said...

When I did this project, a few go-to tricks stuck with me:

1. Buy humanely raised bacon, cook it up, and save the drippings in a jar in the fridge to use instead of butter and oil. (cheaper, and no less healthy according to Michael Pollan)

2. Buy the cheapest veggies available, and cook one of two ways, either of which is indistinguishable from what you'd pay 10 times more for in a restaurant.

2a. Chop veggies, saute in bacon grease, add curry spices and a little broth, then puree with immersion blender, adding more liquid as needed.

2b. Chop veggies, toss with oil and salt, roast on a baking sheet at 350 for 60 minutes.

3. No-knead bread recipe. It uses a truly tiny amount of yeast (the most expensive ingredient in homemade bread), making it cheaper than day-old Wonder Bread by my calculations.

4. Dessert = cinnamon and sugar on buttered no-knead toast

Good luck! Mad props!

Christine S. said...

Hi! Good luck with the challenge!
I think it is awesome that you are trying it.

Though, as someone who has lived off food stamps (and sometimes I wonder if I was the only one in these debates?) and believes in ethical eating, might I recommend the vegetarian version of this? The meat prices will be what drives you up. It's totally doable if you eat vegan. I'm totally reaping the benefits if living in a city and having available ethnic foods (dry beans and such).

But yeah, good luck!

Cynthia L. Landrum said...

You might be interested in the blog of a member of my congregation, who knows what it is to feed a family of 5 on a very reduced diet, and is also concerned with eating ethically. She gave an interesting response to my blog post on the issue at and she blogs at ("Adventures of a Thrifty Mama on a Trailer Park Homestead"). She often posts recipes, too.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Christine Leigh. I'm lacto-vegetarian, not vegan, but one can generally eat fairly affordably and ethically as a vegan or lacto-vegetarian, although those of us in the latter category need to buy hormone-free milk (more expensive) or organic milk (very expensive). I personally don't buy organic milk due to the cost, and also because some of it is unpasteurized.

Despite having a co-op membership, my spouse and I probably do only 1/3 of our food shopping there. The co-op is great for produce, nutritional supplements, and cruelty-free hygiene products, but in many other areas (including, surprisingly, soymeat!) they are unfortunately lacking compared to corporate-owned stores. For example, much of the soymeat sold at the co-op is the Boca brand, which I refuse to buy because it is a Kraft Foods/Philip Morris subsidiary.

Regarding SuperValu: I'm definitely not a member of their fan club, but in the region where I live, they're hard to avoid. There are two local "gourmet" grocery chains where we shop only occasionally; both are supplied by a SuperValu warehouse. Of the two major regional lower/middle-class grocery chains, one is owned by SuperValu and one is SV-free. I prefer the one that is SV-free, but my spouse is the opposite!

Even if I cannot completely avoid SuperValu, I have never spent a dime at four destructive national chains: Aldi, Trader Joe's, Whole Foods, and Wal-Mart. Also, I have boycotted Target since 1997.

AnonymousQuaintPagan said...

Greetings, I'm a UU homesteader, and I understand the challenge in eating ethically on a budget. One thing to consider is that "unofficially Organic" is cheaper than USDA organic. And USDA organic isn't the only ethical certification out there. Many who sell at farmer's markets use "Certified Naturally Grown" which is in some ways better than "USDA Organic" because their farms are inspected and tested for pesticides. "USDA Organic" is more of a paper trail/paper work certification, no actual tests are done on the land. If you use you have a better chance finding "unofficial organic" growers in your area at better prices. Growing your own organic food is your cheapest option, next best is joining a CSA. The easiest way to afford joining a CSA is to use one's tax return, or wait until you have a month where you get 3 paychecks. That's how we did it, when money was tight. I also recommend: and Both have recipes and tips. To afford our eating ethical lifestyle we had to eliminate the cost of disposable products, replacing everything but toilet paper with cloth napkins/rags/cloth towels/cloth feminine products/ cloth diapers, etc. I also make my own cleaning solutions with vinegar, borax, and baking soda and I'm considering doing the "poo-free shampoo" as well. If you weed out many of these costs, you will have more for your food budget.

AnonymousQuaintPagan said...

I'm surprised that the document doesn't also call people to learn how to cook food themselves so that they can avoid processed foods. Eating Ethically can not be removed from the necessity of learning to cook from scratch, weather you enjoy cooking or not, one needs to think of it as a hobby not a chore. Not that all processed food are bad, but such corporations don't take the ethics of eating as seriously as an individual can. Corporations only take ethics as far as their bottom line will permit.

AnonymousQuaintPagan said...

Oh, and another "no brainier", shop at thrift stores and buy as much used as possible, so you can spend the real money on what's really important, real food.

Anonymous said...

The Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Falmouth, in Massachusetts, introduced the statement called "Ethical Eating: Food and Environmental Justice." The statement was proposed at the 2008 General Assembly in Florida.... I encourage everybody who is involved with this discussion to go back to the original proposal. Take a look at what was accepted at the 2008 General Assembly, and, then, look at the final version that was accepted at the 2011 General Assembly. Keep in mind that the years 2008 to 2011
were "economic recession" years that produced movements like Occupy Wall Street.... What happened to the Unitarian Universalist discussion about food and environmental justice? The early emphasis on economic justice and responding to the problems of poverty and hunger was shoved into the background. The final resolution contains brief mention of "environmental justice" but the relevance of "environmental justice" to "ethical eating" is never explained. Instead, the final resolution goes on and on about the advantages of eating vegetables.... Gosh, that's nice, folks. Are you aware that it's the poor folks - in Asia, in Latin America, etc. - who eat very little meat? And it's the poor folks who are often exploited in the global food industry. Ask the migrant farm workers. And it's the low-income families that are often close to malnutrition.... For some reason, Unitarian Universalists turned the "ethical eating" discussion around and - in the midst of a recession! - we moved from concern about economic justice to a conversation about the joys of Whole Foods.... In 2012, our General Assembly will be in Phoenix for "justice making" events. Trying to explain our "Ethical Eating" thinking to immigrants and migrants will be interesting and a
bit sad. (Submitted by Rev. Bob Murphy, Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Falmouth, MA.)